In recent months there has been a major smear campaign against the local Siouxland business, Beef Products, Inc., better known as BPI, and their primary product, “lean finely textured beef,” what they prefer to call LFTB, but what most of us are more familiar with by the term “pink slime.”
Much of what is written about pink slime is misleading, false, and in the case of Jamie Oliver, outright lies. I personally try to avoid eating pink slime. In my personal hierarchy of bad stuff, it’s safer to eat than tilapia. It’s almost certainly safer than the 5 lb tube of hamburger you buy at the grocery store. The problem, in my mind, isn’t with what’s in it, but rather the extent to which it’s processed.
My geeky, scientific self loves the whole concept of LFTB. Fat, cartilage, lean beef, and bone all have different densities. That means that if you put those products in a centrifuge you can actually separate the beef from the fat and cartilage in the same way your friendly neighborhood phlebotomist separates your red and white blood cells to see if you’re vigorous enough to give blood.
In old fashioned packing plants a lot of meat ended up on the floor. It was simply not worth the cost in man-hours to separate the tiny bits of meat from the other bits of cartilage, bone, and fat that surrounded it, so all that got scooped up and shipped to the dog food factory.
What BPI did was to take all those left-over bits (after all the familiar cuts were removed) and run them through something akin to a sieve or a potato ricer. That creates a pinkish substance that almost looks like a batter. They then toss that “finely textured stuff” into a centrifuge, which separates the lean beef, bone, cartilage, fat, etc. into separate layers so the meat can be used. The end product is 95% pure lean beef (and 100% beef product, ie, there’s some fat and cartilage in it) which is so finely ground it’s more liquid than solid. (If you’re worried about that other 5%, LFTB is waaaay more pure than a hotdog or a sausage. Besides, fat, cartilage, and bone all have important nutrients that you can’t get from lean meat. It’s one of the reasons soup stock is so good for you.)
And this leads us to some of the libelous images often associated with LFTB. Before there was a way to economically recover the leftovers from the butchering process, those leftover bits and pieces were scooped up with a front end loader and sent to a dog food factory. The FDA doesn’t require the same high standards for animal food as it does for human food, and so the images of these leftover bits and pieces being hauled off to the dog food factory, when superimposed over a hamburger patty made from LFTB, the associations can be a bit disgusting.
But BPI doesn’t use leftover bits and pieces scraped off the killing floor with a front end loader. Once it was determined that the bits and pieces had economic value, they were handled in a completely different manner by the packing plant – separated onto their own conveyor belt instead of being dropped on the floor – and sold to BPI. The cow parts that end up at the BPI plant are butchered and processed with the same care as the ribeye steak that you see in your grocer’s meat counter.
The second thing that gets completely misrepresented is the addition of ammonium hydroxide gas to the product. Ammonium hydroxide is a chemical compound that naturally occurs in nearly all growing things. Every time I eat home-made bread, fruit fresh from the tree, or a grass fed, organic beef steak, I eat ammonium hydroxide. So while it’s an additive, it’s an additive of something that’s already there.
Ammonium hydroxide has a very high pH. (In other words it’s a base rather than an acid.) Arguably the biggest health danger in ground meats is the potential presence of E. coli, which requires an acidic environment to grow. Meat is naturally acidic, so it’s an ideal breeding ground for E. coli. What the BPI process does is increase the ammonium hydroxide levels in their meat to change the pH balance, making it less acidic and therefore making it very difficult for E. coli to grow.
Jamie Oliver, in his offensive program on pink slime (from his outrageously anti-American television series called Jamie’s American Road Trip), replicates the creation of pink slime by pouring household ammonia into a vat of hamburger, mixing it up, and forcing it through a sieve. That has nothing to do with the BPI process whatsoever. It was simply a bit of theater cynically and purposefully designed to misdirect the audience from the subtly of the process by setting up a red herring.
In fact, if you believe that the industrialized food system that we have in the western world is a generally good and healthy thing, you ought to embrace LFTB with thanksgiving because it addresses one of the most pernicious problems in our food system in an ingenious manner – by slightly changing the pH of the meat with a natural chemical already found in the meat, the meat becomes inhospitable to E., coli, one of the biggest killers in our food system.
My problem with LFTB, or “pink slime” as it has been called by its detractors, is not the product itself (some of my best friends are hot dogs, after all, which are essentially the same thing) but rather the process. LFTB is a long, long way from cattle on the hoof. Even though the collection process for these bits and pieces is very stringent, what else manages to accidently get into the mix? What happens to the lean beef when it is broken into such fine bits that it becomes a liquid? At this point I’m speculating, but I wonder, does the process break down the cell walls of the meat? How does this process (whatever it is) affect the nutritional make-up of the product or how the body processes it?
This is the sort of thing that worries me about LFTB. While it is essentially pure lean beef it is also a processed food. It is certainly not processed in the same way that a Dorito is processed, but it is a few steps farther away from natural than the beef steak in the meat market. Joel Salatin, farmer, lecturer, and whole food evangelist, offers the following test: “If your grandmother doesn’t recognize it as food, don’t eat it.”
Of course the LFTB, which really does look like pink slime, is mixed in with more traditional hamburger, so the BPI frozen patties at the store really do look like any other hamburger (except for the lack of E. coli crawling around the patty — but I jest), but the pink slime itself does not pass the grandmother test. That’s what makes me nervous. With all of our scientific hubris, we break real food down into its constituent parts and then rebuild it into a “new and improved food.” The catch is that many years later we discover it’s often not better, but actually detrimental to our health. Even though there’s no evidence to date that LFTB is any different than hamburger, except for the slightly higher pH, I wonder about what we don’t know.
There’s probably nothing wrong, in and of itself, with the LFTB. But there is something terribly wrong with the way we have industrialized food – from the pesticides and fertilizers to the additives and “natural flavors.” LFTB is a link in that chain. To every extent possible I avoid the chain altogether and seek out real food which is more nutritious than industrial food. So, even though Chef Jamie Oliver and the producers of the documentary, Food, Inc., make me angry, I still have a hard time siding with BPI. I don’t care that it’s “lean finely textured beef,” it still looks like pink slime to me. And I’ll admit that I’m inconsistent. I like my hot dogs to be pink, but I’m not ready for my hamburgers to go down the same path.
After all, grandma would recognize a hot dog.
p.s. To hear BPI’s version of the story, they have posted five videos on YouTube, which can be accessed from their home page at http://www.beefproducts.com/.