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Should 'Pink Slime' Be Labeled?

Beef cuts that are used to make "pink slime" or lean finely textured beef were on display during a tour in March of the Beef Products Inc.'s plant in South Sioux City, Neb.
Nati Harnik
Beef cuts that are used to make "pink slime" or lean finely textured beef were on display during a tour in March of the Beef Products Inc.'s plant in South Sioux City, Neb.

The fallout from the consumer backlash to so-called "pink slime" continues to hurt meat sales. Now, some companies are taking steps to label the product they call "lean, finely textured beef" in hopes that they can earn back consumer trust.

Tyson and Cargill, two multinational firms that sell ground beef containing the processed trimmings, say they have submitted labeling requests to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in hopes that some customers will feel better about buying ground beef containing LFTB if it's labeled.

"The number of customers requesting non-LFTB product increased substantially following the media's inaccurate portrayal of LFTB, but we have recently seen an increased interest in purchasing ground beef containing LFTB as customers and consumers gain access to more accurate information," Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman tells The Salt in an email statement.

But it's not clear that labeling LFTB can save Beef Products Inc. The South Dakota beef processor was forced to close three plants last month after retailers and a government school lunch program backed away from its product.

The consumer push to remove LFTB from the food supply was largely motivated by safety concerns. One petition noted that in 2009, The New York Times reported that government and industry records showed testing had found E. coli and salmonella pathogens in Beef Product's trimmed meat product. Other opponents of "pink slime" say the industry's use of ammonium hydroxide to kill pathogens in the beef trimmings is a turn-off.

Current food safety and disclosure rules don't require ground beef labels to list LFTB as an ingredient. The USDA says that LFTB is not listed on labels because the material is still beef.

But USDA spokesman Dirk Fillpot says that recently, it received the first-ever applications from several companies who want to "clarify the use of [LFTB]" — which, Fillpot notes, is still "lean, safe and nutritious."

Even so, attorney Andra Greene, who has litigated class-action lawsuits on food transparency and labeling claims, says she understands why consumers have felt misled by the stance that LFTB is just beef.

"While it's made out of scraps and that may be literally true, it's certainly not what you're thinking of when you're buying ground beef," says Greene, a partner at Irell & Manella LLP. "So it's inherently deceptive, even though the government has said it was OK."

Others who are concerned about how the revelations about LFTB have shaken consumer confidence in meat agree.

"Transparency, knowledge and choice — that is what consumers need in their spending decisions," Chris Petersen, a farmer and president of Iowa Farmers Union, told the Food Democracy Now blog.

But there's no sign yet of when the labels will appear on ground beef products; both the industry and USDA say they're still in the application stage.

As for the objections to the use of ammonium hydroxide to kill pathogens in LFTB, USDA says it considers the chemical a "processing aid," not an additive. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration deemed ammonium hydroxide as a "generally recognized as safe" substance in 1974.

Moreover, according to FDA spokesman Douglas Karas, there isn't much ammonia left once the hamburger has reached the plate. "When ammonium hydroxide is heated, as it would be in the case of baking or cooking, it would break down into ammonia gas and water," Karas says in an email. "The ammonia should be expelled as gas. ... So, in practicality, it wouldn't be in a final baked or cooked product."

That the FDA and USDA have had to clarify so many questions about LFTB is one indicator of how little most consumers understand about how many food products are processed. And as more consumers are displeased with what they're learning, it's putting the industry on the defensive.

And now it seems, it's not just beef producers who are feeling the pinch. As the Meatingplace news site this week, the recent distate with LFTB is now affecting the pork market. According to the CME Group's Daily Livestock Report, pork trim prices have fallen since March 1 this year.

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Eliza Barclay
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