Monday, December 31, 2012

Having the beef conversation part two

Myth and Fact

Last time I wrote about having the beef conversation with consumers. I recommended that potential beef advocates be sure of their facts, for an uninformed answer can do more harm than good. I used LFTB (Lean Finely Textured Beef), or pink slime as an example. LFTB is sometimes called Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings (BLBT). So this time let’s talk about some myths and facts.

The LTFB/pink slime story is extremely important to beef producers and the beef industry specifically, and to the entire food sector in general. The story is just as important to consumers. You would be hard pressed to find a single consumer who hasn’t heard about pink slime.

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, 2012 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.

Even the Nebraska Farmers Union (NFU), characteristically long on propaganda and short on fact, weighed in. Their message? Seventy percent of ground beef is pink slime. Pink slime consists of waste beef trimmings formerly used mainly for pet food and cooking oil. Pink slime is treated with poisonous ammonia. Pink slime is not fresh ground beef but a cheap waste product. The USDA official who signed off on the process in the 1980’s was an unethical scientist.

The major media clearly misrepresented the facts. In many, perhaps most, cases, outright fabrications were presented as objective news. The story resonated with today’s so-called “foodies,” – consumers who are extremely interested in where and how their food is produced. Many foodies wrote newspaper, magazine, internet articles and blog posts on the subject, and a few television personalities devoted entire shows to pink slime.

The story went viral. Only a very few of  those internet postings were objectively factual or acknowledged the existence of other viewpoints. The major media/internet consensus was that pink slime is poisoned food and that it directly threatens the health of consumers. “Innocent schoolchildren” were said to be particularly at risk, with the USDA “force-feeding” pink slime in school lunches.

Jamie Oliver, a British chef and star of several popular food shows, presented a particularly disturbing pink slime segment on his show “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.” Oliver, a natural and consummate showman, demonstrated how pink slime is “really” made. He threw beef trimmings into a front loading washing machine to demonstrate the centrifuging process, creating an ugly smeared mess on the glass door of the machine. After removing the trimmings to a plastic container, he added household ammonia cleanser and water, then drained and ground the soapy mess. During the demonstration he suggested that the USDA had secretly approved LFTB, and just as secretly forced the product into schools, retail markets, and restaurants.

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. Click on the picture for a larger image.

To be fair, Oliver carefully chose his words, leaving plenty of room to argue that he hadn’t actually lied, had only implied. At one point he did admit that he didn’t know the exact process, but “imagined” that his demonstration was accurate.

Implications, cherry-picked details, and out-of-context remarks are common tactics used in the ongoing pink slime saga. Many, including passionate activists, are simply trying as hard as they can make a convincing argument. Few of these people are intentionally lying.

But others, particularly in the major media, consciously and intentionally load their headlines, stories and segments with misleading and manipulated information. As an example, Alex Johnson of MSNBC said that ammonium hydroxide is “…an ingredient in fertilizers, household cleaners and some roll-your-own explosives.”

You can use this very tactic to turn the table in your own beef advocacy efforts, but you must include all the facts and provide useful context.

For instance, you might mention that a bacon cheeseburger contains dihydrogen mono-oxide, a molecular compound made up of explosive and fire-accelerating elements. That if accidentally inhaled, only a few ounces of the compound will be immediately fatal. Dihydrogen mono-oxide is H2O, or water. Molecular water contains two hydrogen (an explosive gas) atoms and an oxygen (part of the fire triangle) atom.

In addition to dihydrogen mono-oxide, a bacon cheeseburger contains NaCl, another molecular compound. NaCl combines sodium, a reactive metal that explodes on contact with water, and chlorine, the poisonous gas used to such terrible effect in World War One. As a molecular compound though, NaCl is simply table salt.

This prepackaged ground beef contains sodium chloride. Click on the picture for a larger image.

Water and salt are essential to every form of life on the planet. If for some reason you can’t get water, you will die. The same is true for salt.

Back on the internet front, a Texas mom, Bettina Siegel, was prompted to complain directly to Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. She started an on-line petition drive to remove LFTB from school lunch programs, and the petition quickly garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures. In writing to Vilsack, Siegel wrote, “We care deeply about our children’s health and ask that you and the USDA immediately put a stop to the use of pink slime in the National School Lunch Program.”

The wave of misrepresentations and misreporting about LTFB has prompted a bit of a backlash. Beef Products International, or BPI, has sued ABC and others for slanderous reporting. In a separate action in Nebraska, Bettina Siegel, along with ABC News, Jim Avila, Diane Sawyer and Jamie Oliver have been sued by former BPI employee Bruce Smith. Smith, who was an environmental health and safety officer at BPI lost his job when the company shut down LFTB production.

The concern that activists and many consumers have about LFTB are twofold. Firstly, they claim that the product is made from “inedible” beef trimmings which are loaded with deadly bacteria, including salmonella and E. coli. The trimmings, so the story goes, are fit only for pet food.

Secondly, the activists allege that ammonia is mixed with the beef to kill the bacteria. The activists agree that ammonia is an effective bacteriostat, but allege that it poisons consumers who consume the product, particularly innocent schoolchildren.

Not all consumers are convicted activists. Many are simply concerned about the validity of the anti-LFTB argument. This is where a well informed beef advocate can make a real difference; allaying consumer fears and restoring or reaffirming their confidence in our safe, nutritious, abundant and inexpensive product.

So here are some facts.

  • LFTB in NOT an inedible waste product. No food processing technique can make inedible food edible.

  • LFTB is made from the trimmings that remain after excess fat has been removed from steaks and roasts. The trimmings contain both fat and lean beef, but not even the most skillful meat cutter can separate the two with knife work.

  • To remove the fat, trimmings are spun in a heated centrifuge. The liquid and semi-liquid fat is siphoned off and used to make other food- and non-food products. Once the fat has been separated, the remaining lean beef is treated with aqueous (liquid) or gaseous food grade ammonium hydroxide. This slightly lowers the pH of the product, making it a very tough environment for bacterial survival. The entire process of making LFTB is strictly controlled and constantly monitored by USDA inspectors.

  • Treatment with ammonium hydroxide changes the color of the beef from deep red to a pinkish hue. The color change is a simple chemical process and is no different from the color changes caused by other meat curing processes. Think of corned beef, ham, sausages, etc.

  • The process of curing meat has been going on for longer than our recorded history. Other curing agents include smoke, sugar, sodium nitrite, potassium chloride, and sodium chloride (table salt).

  • Since LFTB recaptures lean beef and adds to the overall beef supply, it also helps to lower beef prices for the consumer.

  • It is true that many food animal byproducts, such as organ tissue, connective tissue, bone meal, beyond-shelf-life retail meat, and prior to the advent of the LFTB process, fatty meat trimmings, went into pet food. There was simply no economical way to recover the lean meat. But meat trimmings were never inedible or a waste product.

  • LFTB has been approved and widely consumed since the mid-1980’s and is an FDA/USDA approved safe and nutritious meat product. The dreaded pink slime has been consumed by countless millions with no record of ill effect.

  • Far from being an unnatural chemical, ammonia is a nitrogen compound which occurs in all foods. A bacon cheeseburger made with LFTB contains a total of  232 milligrams of ammonia. The bun contains 50 mg, the bacon 16 mg, the condiments 50 mg, and the cheese 76 mg. The LFTB adds only 40 mg to the burger, about 17 percent of the total.

Those are some facts you can arm yourself with if you choose to accept the challenge of beef advocacy. The Beef Checkoff folks recommend, in their guide to having the beef conversation, that advocates be polite and courteous and non-defensive. Most consumers are looking for facts and reassurance. Few are looking for an argument.

Last week I e-mailed Bettina Siegel and she promptly responded. I didn’t ask her permission to share our correspondence, so I’ll only say that our exchange was cordial and respectful. She and I may disagree on the subject, but I admire her determination and commitment.

I’m also a great fan of Jamie Oliver’s early television shows. He’s clearly a skilled and competent chef and has a great television personality. He’s passionate about food. And even though he’s introduced misinformed and biased activism into his more recent efforts, he does present a lot of very good information about food.


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