In 2012, a defamatory story about lean, finely textured beef (LFTB) aired on ABC, deriding both Beef Products Inc. (BPI) — the company that produces LFTB — and the product by calling it “pink slime.” The ABC story resulted in 750 people losing their jobs and three out of four BPI production facilities shuttering.
BPI fought back, filing a nearly $2 billion lawsuit against ABC. The landmark lawsuit settled in June 2017, when ABC paid $177 million dollars out of pocket and its insurers paid a much larger sum (according to the Chicago Tribune, among other sources). Now, almost seven years later, things are looking up for BPI and its employees. After a multi-month evaluation, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has ruled that LFTB meets the regulatory definition of ground beef under the law in 9 CFR 319.15(a) and thus may be labeled as ground beef. While it has generated some peripheral controversy and consternation, the ruling is entirely congruent with the facts.
Conceptually, the production of LFTB is very similar to that of ground beef. Most trimmings produced during whole-muscle processing are sold to grinders who use them to make ground beef — but ground beef, by definition, must be at least 70 percent lean. Adding whole cuts of lean meat (i.e., steak) to counter the high amount of fat in the trimmings would be prohibitively expensive. That’s where LFTB comes into play. BPI produces LFTB by heating trimmings to soften the fat and then spinning them at high speeds in centrifuges to separate the melted fat from the lean bits. Those lean bits (LFTB) are added to the ground beef mix to bring up the lean percentage.
Previously, LFTB was deemed a “qualified component” of hamburger, meaning it could be added to ground beef without any additional disclosure requirements. It could not, however, be labeled as ground beef. BPI sought to have the status changed, prompting a multi-month review by USDA-FSIS. After a long process of review, FSIS has granted the request for reclassification of BPI product as simply ground beef.
The reclassification process involved a series of complex steps requiring BPI to prove to FSIS that its products met the nutritional standards and requirements for ground beef. In addition, BPI had to demonstrate to inspectors and researchers who visited BPI’s facility that the technology and processes were consistent with granting a product reclassification. Finally, BPI participated in a consumer panel whereby samples of BPI’s lean beef product were compared with commercially available ground beef purchased at retail.
The work of the meat industry is not exactly glamorous, but it is a critically important part of our global and national food system. We must operate based on reason, science and facts. BPI and its employees have endured a great deal of injustice. It is good for everyone that they have weathered the storm and, by all appearances, emerged stronger on the other side. NP