Travis grew up on his family’s beef cattle farm in south-central Wisconsin. He received a bachelors degree from the University of Missouri in agriculture economics, his masters degree in meat science from the University of Florida, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Colorado State University in meat science. His research focuses on beef quality and international trade. Travis also independently writes his own blog, discussing meat science issues for consumers at www.meatissues.org.
Transparency is a growing concern by consumers and is becoming a larger factor when making purchasing decisions. This has been no more apparent than the recent debacle the meat industry has found itself in with Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB), or more cordially known by the media as “pink slime.”
Briefly, LFTB is a beef product derived from high fat trim taken off the carcass during fabrication. The trim is heated to about 100°F, and fat is separated from lean by a centrifuge. The lean portion is treated with a small puff of ammonium hydroxide gas to increase the pH as a microbial intervention and then quickly frozen (note: this product is produced by several different companies. The process described is specific to one, and varies by producer). This product is then included into normal ground beef at up to 15 percent.
Food activists and consumers have taken issue with the use of ammonium to treat the beef, indicating that the meat industry has been withholding that information from the public. The fire has only been fueled by an onslaught of misinformation from the media, spreading mistruths about the product. This has included that the trim was normally used for pet food; the product is treated with household bathroom cleaner ammonia; and the product has to be cleaned because it is rancid with pathogenic bacteria…and that is only the beginning.
The current situation has food activists and the meat industry in a gridlock with conflicting ideals over the product. One side claims the product must be labeled and it should be up to consumers to decide if they want to purchase it. The other claims this product is entirely safe, healthy and wholesome, and is no different than normal beef; hence no need for a label. The USDA indicates that ammonium hydroxide is used as a “processing agent” and not an ingredient; therefore there is no need for labeling. Yet, this has done little to hold detractors at bay.
The case for transparency in food production is understandable by consumers, and their pleas cannot fall on deaf ears by food producing industries. Consumers have more information available to them than ever before, and have even larger platforms to announce their discourse for a particular product or industry. During the heat of the pink slime controversy, there were over 20 mentions of #pinkslime on Twitter every minute. It’s these conditions that lead to the snowball effect of misinformation and bad PR, and ultimately resulted in a petition to take LFTB out of the National School Lunch Program to get over 200,000 signatures in just nine days.
However, it’s unfair to shoulder all the blame on the meat industry. This is a product that meat producers have 100 percent confidence in, and packers can tout as sustainable in an industry that often gets labeled otherwise. The process preserves 10-15 pounds of beef that would otherwise get thrown away during fabrication. More importantly, the portion of the process that consumers take issue with is an intervention to improve food safety, not a process to make inedible meat suddenly edible; something in meat processing which is impossible to do.
The real question becomes, though, could this whole controversy have been prevented had the meat industry simply revealed the nature of the process from day one? It’s very likely. However, the LFTB issue created the perfect storm of poor media coverage and lack of proactive communication on the meat industry’s part to eventually escalate into a national story. When consumers learn the nature of a product through a national news exposé, it’s bound to end badly, which it ultimately did. The end result is a company closing three of their four production plants and over 600 people out of work.
The adage goes: if you don’t tell your story then someone else will. Jim Avila at ABC World News Report took the honor of telling Beef Product Inc.’s story, and the rest is history. ABC chose to exclude experts from their coverage, disseminate false information about LFTB, and painted an awful picture of a good product. Yet, it took that news story for the good information on LFTB to come out.
There are many processes in meat production that if witnessed by a consumer would likely be unsavory. Yet, when put into context, consumers would likely be more accepting than what we give them credit for. Thus, the industry toes a fine line of producing a product that is healthy and safe, but could be perceived negatively by consumers; ultimately leading to the discussion on if it should have been labeled in the first place.
Currently, the USDA has left it up to retailers to independently label LFTB in their ground beef, and we will see if mandatory labeling comes in the future. While people in the meat industry understand the value and safety of the product, consumers feel duped by unknowingly putting a product they understand little about in their burgers. When that is the overriding sentiment by the millions of people buying your product, you can understand the backlash that has ensued.
Hopefully the positives of LFTB will be effectively communicated to consumers and confidence will be re-instilled in the beef industry and the product. Until then, it is the meat industry’s responsibility to be as transparent as possible and make sure they tell their own story before someone else does it for them.