It was like the old horror movie when a black blob descended from the sky causing people to flee in the city streets. There are at least two things in common between the movie of the 1950's and the recent national episode about a food product now known as "pink slime." Neither is based on truth and both caused pointless panic.
The tale about this misunderstood meat product began in late March when ABC News broadcast a report about the use of lean finely textured beef (LFTB) in retail beef products. The report referred to LFTB as "pink slime," a description coined by a USDA employee and mentioned by the New York Times.
The internet universe exploded with chatter about a product that was suddenly viewed as unappetizing, unhealthy and unsafe. When it was noted that our nation's school lunch program permits schools to use ground beef that includes LFTB, some moms and dads freaked out. On top of all that, more alarm was raised when it became known that ammonium hydroxide is often used as part of the meat preparation process.
Many supermarket chains rushed forward to exclaim that they will never again sell any ground beef product that includes LFTB. Restaurants and other fast food places quickly joined the choir. School districts across the country suddenly vowed to go LFTB-free. On and on the hysteria grew and it's still reverberating today.
So now, let's stop, catch our breath and reflect upon some facts and realities.
Let's first be clear about LFTB. "Lean Finely Textured Beef" was developed to provide more domestic lean beef. The processor purchases beef trimmings (mostly 50% lean or less, from USDA-inspected food processing plants) heats the trimmings, and sends them through a centrifuge process that separates the fat and the meat. The resulting LFTB product is 94% to 97% lean beef. Ground beef containing LFTB has nearly identical nutritional value compared to other ground beef.
The meat is exposed to one puff of ammonium hydroxide (which is already naturally present in beef) to provide extra protection for food safety. The treatment is an antimicrobial intervention directed primarily at E.coli but also is effective on Salmonella. The process has been thoroughly reviewed by scientists and has long been approved by the federal Food & Drug Administration.
Now let's look at the costs and consequences of the rush to hysteria.
Even before the LFTB controversy began, US beef prices were heading higher because of a short supply caused by factors such as the disastrous draught in Texas last year. It has been estimated that it would take an additional 1.5 million head of cattle to produce the beef necessary to replace the use of LFTB. That could be welcome news for the nation's farmers and ranchers, but certainly not for the many families who struggle to put food on the table, particularly in these tough economic times. Moreover, if school districts ultimately decide not to purchase ground beef with LFTB, it will likely raise their costs at a time when many already have trouble providing adequate school lunch programs, despite federal assistance.
Then there are the jobs. Hundreds have already lost their employment after processing plants were forced to close because of the LFTB frenzy. Another 650 will be out of work when the nation's largest LFTB producer permanently closes three plants on May 25th. Unfortunately, more paychecks will disappear; one processing company based in Pennsylvania and operating in five states with 850 employees has filed for bankruptcy.
There are lessons to be learned from this incident. The food industry needs to be proactive with efforts to accurately inform the public about food production and not back away when topics such as "pink slime" surface. Meanwhile, consumers are encouraged to ask questions and critically evaluate what they hear and read in the media and on the internet.
Farmers are naturally concerned that consumers have trust and confidence that the food we produce is healthy and safe. It may make sense that regulations should enable processors to note on package labels if the ground beef has been processed with LFTB. But, it doesn't make sense for a healthy, safe and affordable food product to be banished from production because of rampant misinformation and inaccurate perceptions. It is imperative that consumers base their decisions on facts rather than fear.
Shaffer is president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and a full-time farmer, who grows corn, wheat and green beans on his farm in Columbia County.