Where’s the Beef?

Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings, AKA “Pink Slime.”(Credit: Beef Products Inc.)

The recent media hullabaloo around “pink slime,” begins with a premise that would be applauded in other situations.  A private enterprise, Beef Products Inc (BPI), strives to use every last bit of a resource it has at its disposal—in this case, it’s the beef in the slaughterhouse. But what has come to light about BPI and “pink slime” shows that perhaps another approach would be better.

The official product name for “pink slime” is “boneless lean beef trimmings” (BLBT). It is made from the bits and pieces of meat left over after the steaks and roasts are carved out of the animal carcass. A lengthy New York Times exposé is widely credited with bringing this product into public scrutiny. BPI and industry trade group AMI vouch for its safety.

To make BLBT the beef trimmings are simmered at low heat, spun in a centrifuge to remove the fat and then, to address the high risk of bacterial contamination, sterilized with ammonia gas (AMI describes the amount of ammonium hydroxide used as a “tiny puff”).

“It kind of looks like play dough,” a former Beef Products Inc. employee told ABC News. “It’s pink and frozen, it’s not what the typical person would consider meat.”

Two weeks ago, The Daily reported that the USDA planned to buy 7 million pounds of BLBT for school lunches. This inspired a Houston blogger (and public school parent) to launch an online petition to stop this purchase—and the petition went viral, with more than 240,000 signatures.

In an answer to the petition last week, the USDA announced that schools will have the option to purchase ground beef that does not contain Lean Finely Textured Beef (or LFTB, another term for BLBT). But as food reporter Tom Philpott notes, the USDA only purchases one fifth of the food used in school lunches across the country. The rest is purchased by individual school districts, leaving parents with the task of lobbying school officials to keep pink slime out of the burgers in their kids’ school lunches.

Parents and non-parents alike should also worry about what’s in their freezers. As NPR reported, an estimated 70 percent of ground beef in the US contains some amount of BLBT (there is no mandatory requirement for including its presence on the food label).  You may be better off ordering take out, perhaps; McDonald’s leads a growing number of fast food restaurants that have removed this product from their burgers.

But is there a risk in eating BLBT in the first place? And why does this food product need to be sterilized with ammonia? As the New York Times reported:

“According to a 2003 study financed by Beef Products, the trimmings ‘typically includes most of the material from the outer surfaces of the carcass’ and contains ‘larger microbiological populations.’ Beef Products said it also used trimmings from inside cuts of meat.

Critics point out the risk when the sterilization system breaks down and note that three years ago more than 50,000 pounds of “Pink Slime”/BLBT had to recalled. The Times also highlighted that between 2005 and 2009, the ground beef bought from BPI for school lunches tested positive for salmonella 48 times.

Even those taking BPI’s side of the debate on the safety of BLBT inadvertently assist its critics.  In an interview with the Lincoln Journal Star, Bill Marler, a leading plaintiff lawyer in food safety law suits, applauds BPI’s efforts.

“From a food safety perspective, it’s hard to beat up on BPI,” he told the newspaper.  “They’ve been instrumental in making hamburger safer for all of us.”

Yet foodsafetynews.com, the website that his law firm publishes, emphasizes that “beef trim is notorious for carrying pathogenic bacteria – especially, E. coli O157:H7 and its close cousins, the non-O157 STEC bacteria.”

With the cost of beef climbing ever higher alongside other food prices, consumers are faced with cheaper products that require intensive sterilization, or more expensive products whose prices inspire us to eat less meat.  In the end, eating a hamburger really should be a lot simpler.


Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Dan Klotz is a veteran writer and advocate on conservation efforts and the health and sustainability of our food systems. Dan's career has spanned a wide range of policy issues, including protecting sharks around the world, securing the land rights of indigenous communities, addressing the sustainability and research needs of agriculture both domestically and internationally, advocating for smoke-free workplaces, cleaning up toxic waste sites, and preserving wild areas on land and in the ocean.