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The Battle Over "Pink Slime"
by Shawn Stevens
Author’s note: Special thanks to Joel Chappelle, a food safety professional in our firm, for his research for and contributions to this article. Joel has worked with us for many years, assisting food companies throughout the nation.
The past six months have been a roller coaster for Eldon Roth—founder of BPI—and his company. Last fall, he was inducted into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame, joining household names like Dr. Temple Grandin, Colonel Harland Sanders, and Jimmy Dean.
He has been called an innovator, a philanthropist, and a genius. He is respected and lauded not only by the thousands who have worked for him, but also by the USDA, the meat industry, and, most tellingly, a host of food safety activists and organizations. In an industry that spends billions fighting an uphill battle against microbiological contamination, his products have never been tied to a single foodborne illness or outbreak. Yet, in spite of all that, he finds himself fighting for the life of his company and the jobs of his employees.
The attack on BPI, in its current incarnation, seems to have begun with an April 2010 television segment in which celebrity chef Jamie Oliver invited children and their parents to view a demonstration of what he “imagined” lean, finely textured beef production to be. Discerning viewers recognized the ploy, which included throwing large chunks of beef into a wash machine and pouring a jug of household ammonia (skull and crossbones prominently displayed) into a tub of ground meat, for what it was. Unfortunately, many others believed Oliver’s gimmick to be an accurate representation of the process by which LFTB is produced. It has been viewed on YouTube more than a million times.
The campaign against BPI pressed on in early March when activist and former lawyer Bettina Siegel filed an online petition at change.org, seeking to have “pink slime” banned from the National School Lunch Program. The petition was created only one day before Jim Avila of ABC News began a series of stories attacking BPI. The series, which has been widely discredited and accused of unfairly smearing BPI by propagating misleading information, drew an average audience of more than 7.5 million viewers. The story is most remarkable in that its traction has been so reliant upon the use of duplicitous information and dysphemisms like “pink slime.”
Avila has been among the most vocal of those leading the charge against BPI’s beef products. His attacks have devastated BPI and led to an operational suspension at three of its four plants. Lacking any science-based evidence, and with BPI products having no history of causing even a single illness, the campaign against the company exposes a disconcerting trend by major media outlets to forsake factual, unbiased reporting in favor of tabloid sensationalism.
BPI has many allies, including prominent food safety advocates like Nancy Donley, who founded the nonprofit organization STOP Foodborne Illness after the death of her only child, Alex, to an E. coli O157:H7 infection. He was 6 years old, and Donley has been a tireless advocate and champion of food safety ever since. Despite this, Avila callously suggested at a recent press conference that Donley’s motives for publicly backing BPI’s food safety record were tied to donations the company had made to her organization.
The visibly shaken Donley replied: “No price can be put on my son’s head. I can’t be bought, and neither can my organization. We represent the victims.”
The media’s continuing tendency to forgo reason and science for the sake of sensationalism is unfortunate and disturbing. And the fallout from this negative campaign against BPI has yet to be fully assessed. At a minimum, an innovative and responsible company with an exemplary food safety record is in peril, as are the jobs of the thousands of men and woman who work for BPI.
What Is Pink Slime?
The term “pink slime,” which refers to lean, finely textured beef, was apparently coined in an email written by former USDA employee Gerald Zirnstein. Zirnstein, not known for his grandiloquence, recently expressed regret over the content of the email, saying “[it] screwed up my career at FSIS.” He left FSIS shortly after his remarks were first made public and now regards the decision to leave “a bad choice,” remarking that he felt as though he “jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.” The internal memo has, however, paid great dividends for media personalities and industry critics, who’ve used its contents to demonize BPI.
When discussing LFTB, it helps to have a general understanding of the slaughter process as a whole. Slaughter operations may be conceptually regarded as disassembly lines. As cattle move through the production area, they are cut into products like steaks, roasts, and trimmings. Unbeknownst to many consumers, however, the sustainability of cattle production in the United States is dependent upon the harvest of the animal in its entirety. In addition to beef products, cattle are used for an assortment of products, including soap, animal feed, pet food, fuel, candy, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals.
As muscle cuts, like steaks, move down the production line, they are trimmed of extraneous fat. This process gives steaks the lean appearance consumers are accustomed to. Attached to those trimmings are small bits of muscle (or lean) tissue that for a long time were not economically feasible to separate from the fat. The manual process is comparable to extracting the lean bits from bacon strips by hand, leaving the fat behind. In the beef industry, those lean bits, when all is said and done, are the equivalent of 1.5 million cattle each year.
Eldon Roth and BPI developed a system that could separate the lean from the fat simply and effectively. This stroke of genius revolutionized the beef industry as we know it. To be clear, LFTB is beef—nothing more, nothing less.
The BPI Process
BPI purchases large quantities of fatty trimmings that have been separated from the cuts of muscle. Anyone who has ever grilled a hamburger understands that as beef heats up, the fat melts, separates from the hamburger, and falls, sizzling, into the coals.
BPI’s process for making LFTB is similar, except that the temperature is not raised to the point when the lean product begins to actually cook. In the case of LFTB, the trimmings are heated to approximately one hundred degrees—cooler than many restaurant kitchens—to soften the fat. Once heated, the product is placed in a centrifuge (a spinning colander) and rotated at high speeds. The fat separates and disperses, leaving behind the lean beef. The USDA has never required labeling of beef products containing LFTB, because LFTB is beef.
Much of the misinformation in the campaign against BPI has related to the process of treating LFTB with ammonium hydroxide gas. Ammonium hydroxide is a mixture of ammonia and water. It is used in the processing of baked goods, cheese, chocolate, pudding, gelatin, caramel, potato chips, raisins, and soda, among other things. Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen that occurs naturally in all plants and animals, including cattle and humans. It is a base, as opposed to an acid, meaning its pH is higher than seven. Pathogens like E. coli O157:H7 thrive in acidic environments, like the intestines of cattle, where O157 originates. Using ammonium hydroxide gas to increase the pH of LFTB slightly deprives E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens of the stable environment they need to survive and replicate. The amount of ammonia is minute. To put it in perspective, a tofu burger contains four times as much ammonia as a hamburger containing LFTB.
To say that LFTB is “soaked” in ammonia is false and disparaging. It is exposed for less than a second to a minuscule amount of ammonia gas.
To say that LFTB is “soaked” in ammonia is false and disparaging. As LFTB exits the centrifuge, it travels through a pencil-sized tube where it is exposed for less than a second to a minuscule amount of ammonia gas. This exposure raises LFTB’s pH, reducing the product’s acidity and making it a safer product.
The food industry works hand in hand with government and spends billions of dollars each year to enhance food safety. BPI has, from the beginning, been a leader in the industry. Unfortunately, science, research, facts, and empirical data will never generate the advertising revenue that “pink slime” will.
An Excellent Product
BPI’s LFTB is a safe, wholesome, and healthy product. Taste tests show that hamburgers with LFTB are better tasting, leaner, and juicier than those without. The product keeps beef prices low, ensures the employment of thousands, and, most importantly, is produced by a company that is not only on the cutting edge of food safety but is also willing to put its money where it matters. Donley, who is generally understandably skeptical about the professed corporate commitment to food safety from for-profit companies, confirmed in a recent opinion piece that, when it comes to food safety, “not all companies walk their talk. BPI does.’”
The attack on BPI is not about money or jobs. It is not about science or technological advancement in support of our health. It is certainly not about a self-made man named Eldon Roth who used technology, innovation, and hard work to develop a product that has been proved safe, nutritional, and economical. It is not a story about 300 billion meals that have incorporated BPI and never been found responsible for a single illness. It is not about sustainable food production or the likely increase we will soon see in the price of beef. It is not about food safety leaders like Nancy Donley who will do the right thing in the face of adversity.
In the end, this story is about the unfortunate lapse of journalistic integrity. It is about a 24-hour news cycle, ratings, and ad revenue. It is about major media outlets latching on to misrepresentative stories to generate fear and mistrust among, and then profit from, American consumers.
Only those of us who work in the food industry fully understand the extreme challenges and adversity we face each day to keep our food safe. Eldon Roth, who has spearheaded tremendous success in this regard, is someone each of us should be proud to look up to. We owe it to Eldon, as well as to each of our co-workers, friends, and family members, to stand together in the name of food safety. Let us use the voice of reason to drown out that of hysteria and fear. Today it is BPI—tomorrow it could be you.
Stevens, an attorney at Gass Weber Mullins LLC in Milwaukee, Wis., counsels food industry clients nationally on food safety regulatory and liability issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (414) 224-7784.