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What's next with 'pink slime' and 'lean beef trimmings?'

Pink slime. Sigh.

I thought I’d ducked this story, but much like its creature-from-the-pink-lagoon-sounding name, this issue isn’t going away.

We’ve talked about this many times here at Harvest Public Media, as the stories continue to stack up in mainstream and social media. It’s in our wheelhouse, of course, it being a major food issue. But we’ve been trying to look at it in an objective way, even down to the language used to describe this meat product and process.

“Pink slime” – or what the meat industry calls “lean finely-textured beef” – came up at our panel discussion last week in Columbia, Mo., called “Digest This,” which was a discussion about the motives and messages behind how our food is produced.

Wes Jamison, an associate professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, reminded our audience at the Broadway Brewery that every side in these growing food controversies is spinning and no camp is absolutely accurate. (My blog post about our event is here.)

“The side that finds a simple term that can be communicated simply where people understand it, that’s relevant to their everyday experience emotionally, and then repeat it enough, they tend to be the ones that win,” Jamison said.

I would suggest that the side that coined and has promoted the “pink slime” term has won.

Just this week, Wal-Mart and Kroger became the latest retail giants to announce they won’t be using the product in its ground beef. This follows a huge turnaround last week by the USDA, which announced it would offer school districts the option of ordering ground beef without “lean beef trimmings.”

And the meat industry is obviously very nervous about this controversy. GlobalMeatNews.com reports that industry leaders are saying that without the beef trimmings product, beef prices will rise.

Meanwhile, the USDA’s top food safety official, Elisabeth Hagen, believed there was enough attention to the issue that she released another statement this week reassuring people that the product is safe.

I believe it is important to distinguish people’s concerns about how their food is made from their concerns about food safety. The process used to produce LFTB is safe and has been used for a very long time.  And adding LFTB to ground beef does not make that ground beef any less safe to consume.

As I understand it, the process goes something like this: the trimmings from larger, better pieces of beef are warmed up and run through a processor that removes the fat, then it is gassed with ammonia to remove any bacteria. I found this link on Food Safety News to be helpful:

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.

OK, so we’ve been told that the product is safe. But is it something we want to eat? A lot of people think its flat-out gross – anything treated with ammonia is questionable to many people. That’s why I’ve asked our Harvest Network:

Should ground beef be labeled for ammonia?

Our Facebook friends have already weighed in. Jim Kosmicki said it may be safe, but wondered if it’s healthy.

The USDA is tasked with creating markets for ag products - not in food safety. If you have to process something that much, I'm not sure that it's really food - it might be a food-like product, but it's not really food that's going to be good for your health in the long run.

Dan Teigen figures it’s just a matter of time until something else pops up about the product.

Stay tuned, it'll be interesting to see where the pink slime goes, besides the marketing department for rebranding. When E-coli outbreaks make industry take back mountains of hamburg, they just turn it into precooked pizza toppings or chili - granted, it's no longer lethal, just not exactly "kosher." Of course, this kind of behavior sure makes it easier for those of us who opt to grow higher quality food.

And Angela Andre reminded us that the so-called pink slime is already in many products:

Pink slime is a component of much of the processed meat products, salami, luncheon meat, hot dogs.....I suspect the move to put pink slime in people food happened after the backlash about feeding it to cows and pigs.

What do you think? And where do we go from here on this issue? Share your thoughts with the Harvest Network.