Where’s the Lean, Finely Textured Beef?

Like the estate tax , “lean, finely textured beef”has a marketing problem. The tax’s enemies have successfully hung the popular term “death tax” on it; similarly LFTB, as the meat product is referred to in the industry, has assumed the unappetizing moniker its enemies have given it: pink slime. Unlike “death tax,” which is actually assessed on the windfall some very much living heirs gross after an especially well-off loved one dies, “pink slime,” coined by a microbiologist and critic of the product, is an apt label. The stuff is pink and before being mixed into ground beef as a cheap filler to reduce its fat content and cost per pound, it is slimy.

But is it bad for you?

“See Arr Oh,” a medicinal chemist and guest blogger at Scientific American, gives a level-headed report on Pink Slime, Deconstructed


Connective tissue, trimmings, and scraps from industrial butcher plants are mixed in a large steel reactor, where technicians heat the mixture to 100 oF, initiating tissue lysis – fats and oils begin to rise up, while thicker bits like protein sink. After a spin on the centrifuge to separate these components, lean, squishy pink goo emerges. Ammonium hydroxide – ammonia dissolved partially in water – sterilizes the resulting mass against microbes such as E. coli or Salmonella. (Side Note: a similar product, finely textured beef, uses citric acid in place of ammonia to eliminate pathogens). Once extruded, the “slime” can be blended into hamburger, hot dogs, and other products, or frozen into pellets for shipping and storage.

But, is it nutritious? Consumers can certainly make valid arguments regarding LFTB’s content: there’s less overall “functional” protein than that found in other meat products. An analysis conducted at Iowa State University (A.S. Leaflet R1361) found two-and-a-half times more insoluble protein (77% vs. 30%) relative to soluble proteins in ordinary ground chuck. Nutritionally, our gut bacteria digest much of what we cannot, but there’s a good bet that we can’t get as much value from insoluble proteins (collagen and elastin, found largely in tendons, ligaments, and cartilage) as from their soluble siblings (myosin and actin, usually associated with muscle tissues). While these proteins may be hard to digest, on the plus side, there’s less fat in LFTB (~5%) than standard ground chuck (15-20%).

For those revolted by these contents, or even the thought of anything referred to as “slime” crossing their plates, I have two comments: first, consider Jell-O. The packaging only lists a single ingredient, which reads: gelatin. If you were to tell a child that “gummy worms” and other wobbly treats were made from steamed animal bones, would they really want dessert?

The bottom line here (and isn’t this kind of thing always about a bottom line?) is that the sudden fad to get pink slime “enhanced” beef off school menus and super market shelves really is an overreaction in the sense that the food-substance in question is not dangerous, poisonous or even without some value as a commodity. (At least it’s less fattening and less prone to microbial infiltration–I guess even bugs are turned off by it.) Not even the ammonia used to process the meat-stuff, Oh says, is as worrisome as FDA-approved techniques (like carbon monoxide exposure, to give ground beef its “healthy” glow) and fillers (you don’t even want to know!) widely used in the industry.

LFTB has been around since the 1980s, and in school-lunch burgers and meatloaves since the early 1990s. So why are schools, markets and restaurants all of a sudden rushing to get it out of circulation? This wikipedia article gives a history of pink slime’s slow burn to oblivion, from a New York Times article in 2009 to yesterday’s counter-marketing tour (“Dude, It’s Beef!”) by governors Rick Perry of Texas, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Terry Branstad of Iowa of Beef Products, Inc., the plant where pink slime is made. The PR disaster of the last few weeks has all but snuffed out BPI, which, considering the nature of the charges against the product, seems a bit unjust. “Let’s call this product what it is and let ‘pink slime’ become a term of the past,” said Perry after the tour. Good luck, governor, convincing people it isn’t pink slime! Of course the governors aren’t acting purely out of concern for the job losses BPI’s PR problems have caused. A cynic would have to point out that Branstad, for one, received $150,000 in campaign contributions from BPI in 2010. “I always fight for my constituents and I will always fight for what is right,” he said. Oh, sure.

I like a hamburger as much as the next guy, and I have to say, if given a choice, I wouldn’t want pink slime in my burger. But then, if given a choice, I wouldn’t want my burger to come from the industrial beef factories whose corn-fed product pink slime is added to. I’ve had burgers made from grass-fed cattle and they are unquestionably more delicious, when you realize that’s what beef should taste like. Maybe it isn’t fair to “slime” a product that was originally meant to make beef safer, more affordable and lower in fat. But I think it’s fair to demand that consumers be warned when the beef they’re given is supplemented with LFTB–whatever you want to call it. Just tell us what you’re asking us to put in our mouths.

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