Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sensation over substance

In a world where the major media was less a politically active industry with a goal of reporting objective news, the so-called “pink slime” story which recently played out across the newspapers of America would have never made it past the editor’s red pen.

But when it came to reporting on pink slime, as told in print and across the airwaves and internet, the story was mostly an attack on red meat, woefully short on facts, rife with distortions, and calculated to instill a sense of intense unease regarding food safety in the minds of consumers.

The term pink slime was coined by microbiologist Dr. Gerald Zirnsteinmay in a 2002 e-mail. It began to gain world-wide traction when British celebrity chef and food activist Jamie Oliver campaigned against the product in early 2011.

In March of this year Time magazine reported, “It’s unhealthy enough to earn a ban from fast-food giants McDonald’s and Taco Bell, and it’s banned for human consumption in the U.K. But is the notorious “pink slime” beef good enough for your children, to be served up in their school lunches?” Such slanted and opinion-loaded phrasing is representative of the way the rest of the major media reported on the subject.

The major media rarely makes openly false statements in their reporting, but they do use words and phrases to skillfully project a certain point of view. Time used the words “ban,” “unhealthy,” and “notorious,” then raised the specter of poisoning innocent children.

So what’s a food-animal producer to do when faced by such deceptive and slanted reporting? Fortunately, the story just didn’t have “legs” with an increasingly media-skeptical public. Still, the best thing a producer can do is to study the topic, gather facts, and be prepared to respond with calm objectivity when non-producers ask questions.

Here’s the rundown on pink slime. In the processing industry it is called Lean, Finely Textured Beef (LFTB). It’s been produced since the 1980’s and is an FDA/USDA approved, nutritious meat product which has been consumed by countless millions of Americans for more than 20 years with no record of ill effect. The product is made by placing beef trimmings, which contain fat and lean meat, into a heated centrifuge, which spins at high speed and forces most of the fat out, leaving behind the lean meat. The lean meat is treated with ammonium hydroxide, which lowers the pH of the meat making it an unsuitable host for bacterial growth. The ammonium hydroxide also changes the lean meat from a deep red color to a pinkish color. The color change is a simple chemical process and is essentially the same process which gives many cured meats a similar hue. Think of corned beef, ham, sausages, etc. As LFTB recaptures lean beef and adds to the overall beef supply, it also serves to keep beef prices down for the consumer.

These beef trimmings are the precursor to Lean, Finely Textured Beef or LFTB. Such trimmings are spun in a heated centrifuge to separate the lean meat from the fat.

Unfortunately, nearly all major media stories shouted that the process was taking waste product intended for pet food, adding ammonia, and forcing it on children through the school lunch program. “Who knows,” to paraphrase countless major media stories on the subject, “what all this pet food and ammonia is going to do to the poor children?”

There are a lot of problems with this line of baseless supposition. It’s hard to know where to begin to deconstruct the narrative. But let’s start with the pet food.

Some meat products are processed into pet food, including organ tissue, connective tissue, bone meal, beyond-shelf-life cuts and ground meat – and before the advent of the centrifuging process – meat trimmings. Prior to the advent of the LFTB process there was no economical way to recover the lean meat from trimmings, so much of it went into the pet food stream. But meat trimmings were never a “waste product.”

Now what about the ammonia? Pure molecular ammonia (NH3), whether in gas or liquid form, is extremely caustic and very small quantities can cause burns externally or death if taken internally.

As most of us probably learned in high school science classes, combining elements and molecules alters the properties of the end product. Ammonium hydroxide is not pure ammonia. It is a solution of ammonia and water, and when applied in the concentrations used to produce LFTB, it merely lowers the pH enough so that bacteria such as E. coli cannot survive in the food product. Adding water doesn’t simply dilute the ammonia, it changes it chemically into aqueous ammonia, also known as ammonium hydroxide.

Another meat-curing compound is common table salt, or NaCl, sodium chloride. Rather than lowering pH, sodium chloride dehydrates meat so that bacteria cannot survive in or on it. It also adds flavor, and most of us flavor a wide variety of the food we eat with table salt. French fries, for instance. But if you poured pure sodium on your fries there would be an explosion and you might be badly injured. If you attempted to season your fries with pure chlorine, which is a gas at standard temperatures and pressures, it would quickly kill you by destroying your lungs and depriving you of the ability to breathe. In combination, however, salt not only makes your fries more palatable, it serves your body as a vital electrolyte and is essential to your continued survival.

The process of curing meat has been going on for longer than our recorded history. Some curing agents include smoke, which contains many curing compounds, sugar, sodium nitrite, and potassium chloride.

All processed meat sold commercially in the U.S. must pass muster with the USDA and FDA. Both the process and product must be tested and approved and the meat product must clearly carry an inspection stamp or label. LFTB has been approved and widely consumed for more than 20 years.

And those are really the points a producer should make clear when answering questions. LFTB has been approved by the FDA/USDA, is always inspected, is not treated with ammonia, is nutritious, and has a 20-plus year track record of safety.

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