“Dude, it’s beef.”
That’s what cool heads are saying in response to a bogus controversy over lean finely textured beef, a food that irresponsible critics have labeled “pink slime.”
Say what you will about sticks and stones. Name-calling can hurt too, as the smear campaign against this safe, nutritious food proves. Hundreds of Americans have lost their jobs and consumers are on the verge of losing an ingredient that is an excellent example of sustainable agriculture — all because we’ve let sensationalism trump science.
The scandal erupted about a year ago. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, the host of “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” decided to devote one of his episodes to lean finely textured beef. Perhaps he was desperate for ratings.
“The first duty of a revolutionary is to get away with it,” said Abbie Hoffman. That’s what Oliver did: He got away with one of the biggest food scams ever to air on TV. The disinformation he served inflicted damage that we’re all going to feel for a long time.
Lean finely textured beef is the result of an innovative process that separates meat from fat in beef trimmings. Rather than disposing of the small pieces that are left when you cut beef into steaks and roasts, the processor puts the pieces into a centrifuge – it looks like a large, high-speed mixing bowl. The centrifuge is warmed and spins, a process that separates the meat from any small pieces of fat, resulting in a high-quality beef product that is at least 90 percent lean. It can be added to ground beef offering a leaner, cost effective product that many American consumers want without compromising nutrition and enhancing safety.
Making the most of the resources we have: This is the very definition of sustainable agriculture.
Max Armstrong, a national agriculture broadcaster, has suggested this product be called “trim beef.” Another suggested term is “boneless lean beef trimmings.” A name is important – we’ve learned that lesson. Consumers want to know what is in their food and they have that right. Branding and labeling are tools that are often discussed. But the substance is most important. In this case: a 100 percent beef product that becomes a low-fat additive, mixed or blended to customer specifications. Anybody who has eaten a hamburger made from ground beef almost certainly has tasted lean finely textured beef.
Yet in the quest for televised titillation, there’s no time for nuance.
When Oliver launched his assault on lean finely textured beef, he refused to provide an even-handed account of the production process. His props even included a jug of household ammonia, with a skull-and-crossbones sticker slapped on its side. This was Oliver’s way of representing ammonium hydroxide, a food additive approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration. It’s a common ingredient not just in beef but also cheeses, baked goods, and pudding because it kills bacteria that can carry diseases like E. coli and salmonella.
As consumer information, Oliver’s shock-chef show was pure bunk. As propaganda, it was sheer genius. The shameless and scientifically ignorant attack went viral. Food-industry critics made it a cause. Bloggers, both witting and unwitting, jumped on the bandwagon. The mainstream media got involved as well, often ditching any commitment to fair-minded coverage in favor of false drama.
On the Internet, one of the most frequently displayed images of finely textured lean beef wasn’t even beef, but rather a poultry product.
Oliver’s routine was “outrageous,” said Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a former Democratic congresswoman from South Dakota. “He should be called out on it,” she said.
Yet the smear campaign worked. Facing pressure from outspoken activists, several large restaurant and supermarket chains have stopped accepting food that contains lean finely textured beef. Following the drop in demand, 650 workers in three states lost their jobs and another company was forced into bankruptcy. In our lousy economy, the unemployment rolls are already too high. Now they’ve grown a little higher in Amarillo, Texas, Holcomb, Kansas, and Waterloo, Iowa, thanks to the scare-mongering hysterics of a television show that wasn’t good enough to survive cancellation.
The best weapon for fighting lies is the truth. Last week, the governors from the three states affected by the layoffs toured a meat processing plant in Nebraska. Then they feasted on burgers that included lean finely textured beef as an ingredient. When they were done, they introduced a new slogan: “Dude, it’s beef.”
Let’s hope the line catches on, saving a sustainable food, recreating those lost jobs–and lasting longer than Jamie Oliver’s show.
Carol Keiser owns and operates cattle feeding operations in Kansas, Nebraska and Illinois. She is a Truth About Trade & Technology  board member.