Lean finely textured beef, also known as "pink slime," has made headlines around the world. From Jamie Oliver's YouTube video to stories from ABC News, you've probably heard several versions of the story by now. Many grocery stores have stopped selling ground beef that also contains lean finely textured beef. And schools can opt-out of receiving it, too.
Best Food Facts interviewed Dr. James Dickson, Iowa State University, about “pink slime” and its implications. Learn how lean finely textured beef is processed in Dr. Dickson's post, by clicking here.
Because of the public outcry about "pink slime," meat processing plants have closed, and jobs have been lost. But there are other factors to consider: Will our meat be safer? Will the price of ground beef go up? Will more cattle have to be slaughtered to make up the difference? What happens to all the lean finely textured beef that's on the market right now? Will lean finely textured beef go into other products?
Best Food Facts interviewed Dr. Jude Capper, Assistant Processor in the Department of Animal Sciences, Washington State University, and Dr. Jolena Waddell, Program Director of Meat Sciences and Lecturer, Department of Animal Sciences, Purdue University, about the consequences of lean finely textured beef leaving the U.S. food system.
Many grocery stores are pledging to stop selling ground beef that also contains lean finely textured beef. Will the price of beef go up because of this?
Dr. Waddell: "Lean, finely textured beef has gone through a process to remove lean pieces of muscle from mostly fat trimmings. Beef trimmings are what go into ground beef. As consumers demand higher percentage lean in their ground beef, it is necessary to remove some of the fat somehow. This allows for more efficiency and production from every carcass (getting every bit of lean muscle from each animal) and gives the consumer the percentage lean ground beef that they want.
"To continue to produce 90-95% lean ground beef without lean finely textured beef, we will likely have to import very lean beef carcasses from Australia and Brazil to mix with our fatter beef (or start growing some of our beef differently). This, in the presence of decreased American cattle numbers, will undoubtedly drive up the price of ground beef.
"Beef Products Inc., the company that makes lean finely textured beef, has closed three of their four plants this week, laying off more than 700 workers. Other companies, like Cargill, now must find a different market for their beef trim that used to go to Beef Products Inc. to become lean finely textured beef.
"In my mind, this is a step back in efficiency and sustainability in our food supply. In a time when we need to make more safe, economical food for the world, the media sensationalism and falsehoods that were spread have pushed the beef industry in the wrong direction."
Some school lunch programs are choosing ground beef that doesn’t contain lean finely textured beef. Because of this will school lunch prices go up?
Dr. Waddell: "It will likely either increase the cost of school lunches for those districts that choose products not containing lean finely textured beef, or cause schools to choose higher fat content ground beef that doesn’t require extra lean beef."
We have been told the food industry is focused on using as much of the animal as possible in an effort to not waste food, especially because of the need to feed a growing population. If we stop using lean finely textured beef, how much more beef will we have to process to keep up with demand?
Dr. Capper: "Lean finely textured beef adds 10-12 lb of lean nutritious beef to every animal processed. Each animal yields approximately 660 lb of boneless beef. That means that to produce the same amount of beef for human consumption we’d need to process an extra 1.5-1.9% more cattle each year – that’s between 516,000 and 654,000 extra cattle in the U.S. per year."
What about the environmental impact of having to raise more cattle to fill the void by not using lean finely textured beef?
Dr. Capper: "Raising more cattle in order to produce the same amount of beef increases the amount of land, energy and water needed for beef production, as well as the carbon emissions related to beef production."
Why is it important to use every part of the animal?
Dr. Capper: "In a society where our goal is to produce more food using fewer resources, it is essential that we make the best possible use of every animal product. There is considerable domestic demand for the cuts of beef preferred by the US consumer, and a significant proportion of less-popular cuts (e.g. organ meats) are exported to regions where there is high demand for them. Beef production is about more than meat. We also gain a number of by-products including leather, fertilizer, pharmaceuticals, adhesives and many others. If we simply composted or incinerated the parts of the animal that we don’t eat in the U.S., it would be hugely wasteful."
What will happen to the lean finely textured beef products if no one wants them? Will it go into dog food or be thrown away?
Dr. Capper: "Lean finely textured beef products are a safe and nutritious form of beef. However, if consumer demand is such that it is removed from the human food supply, it would make absolute sense for it to be used in companion animal feed."
For more information about lean finely textured beef, read our post: The Truth About “Pink Slime”.
Update: Best Food Facts also received some information from Dr. Ron Lemenager, Beef Nutrition and Management, Purdue University, about lean finely textured beef.
Dr. Lemenager: “The reason for adding the lean finely textured beef to hamburger is to add lean content (less fat). Adding the ammonium hydroxide in the process of making this product is to make the product safe from bacterial contamination. There is absolutely no reason not to use this product in hamburger. While it may look a little funny to some folks in its raw state (hence the poor choice of terms – ‘pink slime’), it is a safe, lean, high-protein product.
“If we eliminate lean finely textured beef from our food system, it has been estimated that we will need an additional 1.5 million head of cattle to fill the void, and that hamburger price will increase 3 cents per pounds to 25 cents per pound. There is also the fact that the global population will increase to over nine billion people by 2050, so we will need to double food production. It has been estimated that 70 percent of that increase will have to come from technology.
“Lean finely textured beef results from technology to provide a safe, wholesome, highly nutritious product just by separating lean from fat in beef trim. The science is sound. This product has been used for over a decade without any food safety or health issues.”
What are your thoughts on "pink slime”?