Joel Greene – Since early March 2012, the use of lean finely textured beef (LFTB) in the U.S. ground beef supply has come under a barrage of media criticism and consumer backlash. The depiction of LFTB in the media as “pink slime” raised the product’s “yuck” factor and implied that there were food safety issues with LFTB, mainly because ammonium gas is used as an antimicrobial intervention in the production of LFTB. Also, the fact that ground beef purchased for the school lunch program could contain LFTB triggered consumer calls for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to immediately end the practice.
The meat industry saw media sensationalism as a campaign of misinformation to undermine a product used for more than ten years to supplement lean beef supplies used in ground beef. Ground beef is the most popularly consumed beef item among American consumers, and consumers have increasingly demanded lean ground beef. USDA approved the process that Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), the primary producer of LFTB, uses to produce LFTB, and USDA continues to affirm that LFTB is a safe, nutritious beef product.
Although LFTB received negative press in previous years, the uproar starting in March 2012 has had greater impacts. USDA changed its policy on school lunches to allow schools to have a choice of whether to buy ground beef with LFTB or not. Major grocery chains announced that they were discontinuing the use of LFTB in retail ground beef. The result has been an immediate, sharp decline in 50% beef trimming prices, and expectations of higher ground beef prices. Some companies decided to voluntarily use LFTB labels on ground beef containing the product. Some food safety advocates who believe BPI was a food safety innovator have expressed concern that the barrage of negative publicity could stifle further innovation by meat companies.
The LFTB controversy demonstrates that consumers’ perceptions and understanding of modern food production can quickly affect markets and/or a company’s business. It raises policy issues about how consumers should be informed by either industry or government. Some Members of Congress have expressed strong interest in the LFTB controversy through statements and letters to USDA. Some Members have called for the immediate end of LFTB in the school lunch program, and others have asked that ground beef include labels informing consumers that LFTB is used in a beef product. Legislation also has been introduced that would require LFTB labels.