I had the opportunity today to visit Beef Products Incorporated (BPI) in South Dakota. If you’re unfamiliar with BPI, they are the manufacturers of lean fine textured beef (LFTB) (more popularly and derogatorily known as “pink slime”). I learned a lot and came away from the tour both impressed and depressed.
I’ve been in a lot of food plants, but BPI’s was one of the most technologically advanced, food-safety focused plant I’ve seen. There is a deep irony in the fact that a company that proactively invested millions in preventative measures to prevent food safety problems found themselves in the limelight for faux safety reasons. It wasn’t an actual sickness or recall or outbreak, it was a sensational news story that tarnished their reputation. That’s what I find depressing. Here is a family-owned business started by an entrepreneur trying do things right. Prevent waste, make more affordable food, make safer food. And they’re made out to be a villain. For what?
Here are some things I learned:
1) LFTB is beef. That’s all. I suppose that’s why the meat-industry created a website called beefisbeef.com. But seeing it made a huge impact on me. There is no bone that goes into the process. You could quite plainly see big tasty-looking strips of beef and roasts going into the process; it simply isn’t worth the packer’s time to carve away all the fat which is why BPI gets it. So, big beef hunks go in one end and out the other end come three products: tallow, cartilage (which is the only waste), and LFTB.
2) Much has been made of BPI’s use of ammonium hydroxide to kill pathogens. But, I didn’t realize that BPI also makes LFTB without ammonium hydroxide, depending on their customer’s wishes. I also found the graphic on their web site interesting, which compares the amount of ammonia in a beef patty with LFTB to the other parts of the burger.
3) At no point in the process did I see anything that remotely resembled the pictures one sees on the internet. LFTB is a little pink but that’s because it is completely frozen. When it is thawed, it looked almost identical to package of ground beef you see on the grocery store shelf.
4) BPI and others have done numerous taste tests with LFTB. In blind taste tests, people almost always prefer ground beef that incorporates up to about 25% LFTB. Burgers with LFTB taste better. Who knew?
5) Cargill made a lot of news a couple weeks ago with their announcement to label their version of LFTB. I was surprised to hear that BPI has been doing it for over a year! But, here’s the thing. BPI doesn’t sell directly to retail, so it isn’t as simple as telling BPI they should label because – number 1 the USDA controls what they can put on their label – and number 2, they can’t control what the retailer puts on their label.
6) The removal of LFTB from the market caused a spike in the price of lean ground beef and an increase in supply of fattier 73% lean ground beef. Beyond the adverse price impacts on consumers, what are the health impacts of increased saturated fat consumption?
7) For all the talk about the need for more transparency in the food system, I was surprised to learn how untransparent were some food activists in misrepresenting their purposes and intentions when seeking information from BPI.
I don’t necessarily mean to cheerlead for BPI. I’m sure they have their faults. But seeing the people up close and personal who were affected by all the media hype was, quite frankly, tragic.
Surely there is a good journalist who could find a story in that.