Lean, finely textured beef (LFTB) is the proper term for the beef product that is being referred to as ‘pink slime’ in recent media reports. It is beef, 100% beef, but in a finely textured version. The safety concern that many have expressed is not valid. The process used for making LFTB from beef trimmings is an approved process by both USDA and FDA.
Not all beef can become a steak or roast. When meat cuts are trimmed to remove excess fat, some lean is also removed, resulting in beef trim that has a high percentage of fat. It would take too much time with a knife and highly skilled meat cutter to separate this product manually, but again it is pure beef that is being removed from trim pieces that include fat and/or connective tissue. Briefly, the process of making LFTB is as follows: Beef trim that includes fat, small pieces of meat, and bits of connective tissue is heated to about 100° F. The beef is then spun to separate the lean from the fat/connective tissue. Because the temperature of the meat is raised above refrigeration temperatures in the process, there is potential for microbial pathogens present to replicate more rapidly at this temperature. Any time there is potential for microbial growth, food processors must include an intervention step that will minimize the risk. Thus, a puff of ammonium hydroxide gas is applied to the beef. This increases the pH of the meat and creates an environment that does not allow pathogens that might be present to survive.
The ammonium hydroxide gas added almost entirely evaporates; hence, it is not considered a food additive. The resulting product is still 100% beef. The process BPI uses has been approved and used for 30 years without being involved in a recall or safety related issue. Ammonium hydroxide is a naturally occurring compound in beef, other proteins and the human body. Actually, it is used in many other foods during processing as well, both for food safety and as a leavening agent. The use of ammonium hydroxide is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA. Examples of other foods that use ammonium hydroxide during processing include cheeses, baked goods, chocolates, puddings, caramels and other foods. If any levels of ammonium hydroxide do exist in foods, it is at a very small level that has been tested and determined safe by both USDA and FDA.
Approximately 10-12 pounds of 94-97% lean beef is recovered from each carcass using this process. The LFTB is blended with other ground beef at a rate of no more than 15%. Thus, LFTB can be added to ground beef of higher fat content resulting in a leaner end product while maintaining the desirable texture of traditionally ground beef. The USDA has reiterated the safety of LFTB but the National School Lunch Program will now have the choice of purchasing ground beef with or without LFTB. Economists expect a spike in price and potential shortage of lean and very lean ground beef as major fast food and grocery chains have pulled LFTB from the ground beef they use as a result of consumer backlash. Currently, the beef industry has the lowest inventory since 1952. It is estimated that 1.5 million more head of cattle per year would need to be harvested to compensate supply if LFTB is not used. Ultimately, not utilizing LFTB could lead to increased imports of lean trim (from Australia and S. America) to fill the demand for lean ground beef.