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  • It’s high in protein.
  • It’s low in fat.
  • It’s been treated to kill Salmonella and E. coli.
  • It’s lab-tested before it is shipped.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Gerald Zirnstein, a former microbiologist with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, calls the product “pink slime” and doesn’t “consider the stuff to be ground beef,” according to a report carried yesterday evening on ABC National News.

The meat industry, including producers such as Beef Products Inc. and HRR Enterprises, Inc. call it Lean Finely Textured Beef, or LFTB – a far less catchy, but more accurate name.

Where does Lean Finely Textured Beef come from?

Producers of LFTB start with beef trim. This is the “waste” meat and fat that results from trimming higher quality beef cuts (such as steaks) to customer specifications, and is usually used to make ground beef.

The LFTB process begins by separating most of the fat from the beef. This is done by warming the trim and “spinning out” the fat in centrifuges. The result is a very lean beef: approximately 94-97% lean, according to Beef Products Inc. This lean beef can be mixed with higher-fat beef in order to produce low-fat ground beef and processed meat products.

But beef trim is notorious for carrying pathogenic bacteria – especially, E. coli O157:H7 and its close cousins, the non-O157 STEC bacteria. So Beef Products Inc. developed an ammonia gas treatment step to kill the microbes.

What’s the deal with ammonia? Is it legal? Is it safe?

Ammonia is formed naturally in the body as a result of protein digestion by bacteria that live in the intestines. The ammonia is carried in the blood (as ammonium hydroxide) to the liver; there it is converted to urea, which exits the body in the urine. It is normal and usual to find a certain amount of ammonium hydroxide in meat.

Ammonium hydroxide has been used as an antimicrobial agent in meat for more than 40 years. Its safety was reviewed in 1974 by the US Food and Drug Administration’s Select Committee on GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) Substances, who had this to say:

“Ammonia and the ammonium ion are integral components of normal metabolic processes and play an essential role in the physiology of man. Although there have been no significant feeding studies specifically designed to ascertain the safety threshold of ammonium compounds as food ingredients, numerous metabolic studies have been reported in the scientific literature. Extrapolation of these findings to the concentrations of ammonium compounds normally present in foods does not suggest that there would be untoward effects at such levels. In the light of the foregoing, the Select Committee concludes that: There is no evidence in the available information on ammonium bicarbonate, ammonium carbonate, ammonium chloride, ammonium hydroxide, mono and dibasic ammonium phosphate, and ammonium sulfate that demonstrates, or suggests reasonable grounds to suspect, a hazard to the public when they are used at levels that are now current or that might reasonably be expected in future.”

Ammonium hydroxide also is included in the USDA’s list of Safe and Suitable Ingredients Used in the Production of Meat, Poultry, and Egg Products (FSIS Directive 7120.1, Revision 2; last revised 4/12/10). It is used as a pH control agent in brine solutions for meat products, and as an antimicrobial agent for beef carcasses (in hot boxes and holding coolers) and boneless beef trimmings. Ammonia gas (anhydrous ammonia) is also used as an antimicrobial agent for lean finely textured beef.

Ammonia and ammonium hydroxide are among several antimicrobial agents that may be used on beef and poultry without labeling disclosure. Organic acid blends, calcium hypochlorite, chlorine gas, citric acid, lactic acid, and trisodium phosphate are other examples. All of these agents are considered by FDA and USDA to be processing aids rather than ingredients, when they meet one of the following criteria:

(a) substances that are added during the processing of a food but are removed in some manner from the food before it is packaged in its finished form;

(b) substances that are added to a food during processing, are converted into constituents normally present in the food, and do not significantly increase the amount of the constituents naturally found in the food; or

(c) substances that are added to a food for their technical or functional effect in the processing but are present in the finished food at insignificant levels and do not have any technical or functional effect in that food.

Do we need to worry about E. coli and Salmonella in LFTB from Beef Products Inc.?

Beef Products Inc. has adopted ammonium hydroxide treatment of its LFTB products in order to kill the pathogenic bacteria that may otherwise be present in the meat. And they’ve gone beyond USDA’s current pathogen testing requirements for these harmful bacteria. In July 2011, the company announced that it had initiated a “test and hold” policy in addition to its various preventative sanitation and food safety programs.

Every box of LFTB is sampled, and the samples sent to independent third-party labs for analysis. Every box of LFTB is held at the plant until the labs confirm that all specifications – including the absence of Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and other STEC bacteria – have been met. Only once the satisfactory results have been confirmed does the company allow its product to leave the premises.

What do the experts say about LFTB?

I asked Dr. James Marsden (Regent’s Distinguished Professor of Food Safety and Security at Kansas State University) for his opinion.

There are,” he said in an emailed reply, “all kinds of ingredients in food products that can be falsely characterized as unappetizing when viewed out of context. When lay persons see the processes of cheese manufacturing, wine making and the production of the most high quality gourmet processed meats, some of the stages in the process are less than appetizing.

I think the criticism of BPI’s products are based on quality perceptions, not food safety,” Dr. Marsden added. “It should, however, be recognized that BPI made great strides in improving the safety of ground beef through their unique food safety processes. On the one hand, consumers demand safe foods and are right to do so; they also need to recognize that the production of safe foods requires processing interventions.

In other words, it might have an image problem, but Lean Finely Textured Beef – aka ‘pink slime’ – is safe to eat.

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