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The Beef With Ground Beef: Pink Slime

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Ground Beef Packages

Ground Beef Packages

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On the face of it, Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB), doesn’t sound too alarming or even unappetizing, does it? How about its other name, Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings? No, not particularly scary, although "trimmings" might sound a little dubious to some. But pink slime, as it will now forever be known, is at the heart of the latest food fight, both because of what it is said to be, and the fact that about 70% of ground beef has it—but without it being declared on food labels. Boneless lean beef trimmings, or pink slime, has gained national attention because it has recently come to light that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is buying seven million pounds of it to be used in school lunches (although this is hardly the first time).

In 2011, Celebrity English chef Jamie Oliver famously demonstrated his version of the how pink slime is created on his TV show, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, triggering a collective shudder of revulsion. Adding to the negative publicity is the fact that even high-profile fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's and Burger King no longer use it in their beef patties.

Made by Beef Products, Inc., boneless lean beef trimmings is essentially ground-beef "filler" made from mechanically separated meat that apparently contains not only small bits of otherwise inaccessible meat from the carcass, but also cartilage, connective tissue, and other undesirable animal parts—the parts that are most susceptible to bacterial contamination. These are ground up, sprayed with pathogen-destroying ammonium hydroxide (also used in processing other foods such as baked goods), and compressed into a paste. The end result is added to regular ground beef as a filler. The maximum amount allowed in ground beef is 15%.

Despite the cleansing process, which gives the beef its fresh-looking pink hue, there remain concerns that the potential for E.coli and salmonella contamination still exist, as this report from The New York Times discovered in 2009. Part of the pink-slime outrage is that ground beef containing lean beef trimmings need not be declared on meat labels, so consumers are led to believe that their ground beef contains nothing but ground chuck or sirloin. Yet others argue that beef trimmings don't need to be listed because it's still beef, albeit beef that's been treated with a chemical, which is part of a production process, rather than an ingredient in itself.

The American Meat Institute maintains that these USDA-inspected trimmings are "absolutely edible," that the process of mechanically separating beef from fat is "similar to separating cream from milk," and that the end product is "nutritious, lean beef." The AMI claims that the filler is "a sustainable product because it recovers lean meat that would otherwise be wasted." Or, as critics say, that would otherwise go to the dogs. Literally.

How can you avoid pink slime?

Ground beef that is labeled Certified Organic does not contain pink slime, nor does Laura's Lean Ground Beef and, according to ABC News, Costco, Publix, and Whole Foods do not use it. Safeway will no longer use it, and Kroger, which said initially that it would carry both beef with and without LFTB, has decided to stop using pink slime.

What can you do to protest the use of LFTB in school lunches?

Sign this "Tell the USDA to Stop Using Pink Slime in Food" petition, started by blogger Bettina Siegel.

Updates: In response to the negative publicity, the USDA announced on March 14th, 2012, that beginning in the Fall of 2012, schools will be able to choose between meat with or without filler.

On March 26th, 2012, Beef products, Inc. announced that it was suspending operations at three out of four plants that make LFTB.

The government's official report, "Lean Finely Textured Beef: the 'Pink Slime' Controversy," was published on April 6th, 2012. The report provided a timeline of the controversy, and commented on the likely fallout. Companies may label their beef accordingly (as containing or not containing LFTB) but are not required to do so; and the price of ground beef is expected to rise (though this was predicted before the pink slime controversy, as the stock of US cattle is at its lowest since the 1950s).

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