A Mississippi State University meat scientist is describing recent media reports as irresponsible journalism that casts a shadow over established practices that make certain ground beef products healthier and safer.
Byron Williams, assistant Extension and research professor in the department of food science, nutrition and health promotion, said the reports give lean, finely textured beef an unflattering and misleading label. The reports, which label the beef “pink slime,” also misrepresent the products used to kill potentially disease-causing microorganisms that may be present in ground meat products.
“Meat processors have been using lean, finely textured beef to increase the percentage of lean protein in ground beef for nearly 20 years,” Williams said. “They obtain the lean meat by melting fat away and separating it from the lean meat in a centrifuge-type device. That lean meat is then chilled, packaged, frozen and can be added to ground beef products to reduce the amount of fat in them.”
Consumers typically read labels on ground beef products and choose from various percentages of lean content. Leaner meat is usually more expensive but considered healthier.
“If the lean, finely textured beef is eliminated, then the cost of lean ground beef will most likely go up significantly,” he said. “Additional labeling has not been necessary in the past because the ingredients added are all from beef, thus, there is no change in the product.”
Williams said the use of these lean products maximizes the value of and the amount of usable meat protein from raw materials.
The second issue is the use of ammonium hydroxide during processing to address food safety issues. Williams said ammonium hydroxide has been in use since the mid-1970s and is approved for various uses in food processing by both the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Ammonium hydroxide is applied as a gas in very low amounts to the lean product. It is a highly effective way to make sure pathogens are destroyed,” he said. “It does not change the taste or smell of the product and basically dissipates from the product during subsequent steps in the process, leaving the product perfectly safe for consumption.”
Williams said consumers should be aware of what is in their food, but they should not be influenced by media sensationalism, misleading statements and scare tactics that play on the emotions of the public.
“Although processors are not required by USDA to list the products on the label because it is beef, some are voluntarily labeling ground beef that contains lean, finely textured beef, hoping to remain in business while giving people a choice,” Williams said.
John Michael Riley, agricultural economist with MSU’s Extension Service, said that while cattle prices have declined since the media assaults on ground beef began, other factors also are impacting prices.
“Fuel prices have gone up, which often impacts beef demand,” Riley said. “Corn prices have increased a couple of times, which would place additional downward pressure on cattle prices.”
But Riley said recent plant closures and job losses from decreased demand for ground beef could be attributed to the negative media attention.
“Ground beef processor AFA Foods filed for bankruptcy protection on April 2 and announced plans to sell some or all of its assets as a result of the recent media coverage,” he said. “Another company has suspended operations at plants in Texas, Kansas and Iowa for the short term.”