Pink slime

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Pink slime kibble
Giant rolls of pink slime being flash frozen
A frozen brick of pink slime, the finished product
A brick of pink slime being sliced
An image of pink slime used by the meat industry association
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"Pink slime" is the common name for a controversial beef product. The names used in the meat industry are "lean finely textured beef" (LFTB),[1] "finely textured beef",[2] and "boneless lean beef trimmings" (BLBT).[3] It has been mockingly termed "soylent pink".[4][5][6][7] Pink slime has been claimed by some originally to have been used as pet food and cooking oil and later approved for public consumption,[8] however, both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) administrator responsible for approving the product and Beef Products, Inc., the largest U.S. producer, have disputed this.[9][10] This claim is also one of the subjects of a lawsuit currently before the courts.[11] In 2001, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved the product for limited human consumption, and it was used as a food additive to ground beef and beef-based processed meats as a filler, at a ratio of usually no more than 25 percent of any product. The production process uses heat in centrifuges to separate the fat from the meat in beef trimmings.[12] The resulting product is exposed to ammonia gas or citric acid to kill bacteria.[12][13]

In March 2012, ABC News ran a series of news reports about the product, including claims that approximately 70 percent of ground beef sold in U.S. supermarkets contained the additive at that time. As a result some companies and organizations discontinued the provision of ground beef with the product. The U.S. manufacturer Beef Products Inc. said that the claims made in the reports were false and filed a lawsuit against ABC.[14]

Product overview[edit]

Above: ground beef, from a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) image of a beef-grinding operation. Lean finely textured beef, commonly called pink slime, is a beef-based product that is added to ground beef as a filler. It was reported in March 2012 that 70 percent of ground beef sold in U.S. supermarkets contained the product.[8]

The product is used as a filler or to reduce the overall fat content of ground beef.[15][16] It is produced by processing low-grade beef trimmings and other meat by-products such as cartilage, connective tissue and sinew,[17][18] which contain fat and small amounts of lean beef, and mechanically separating the lean beef from the fat through the use of a centrifuge at about 100 °F (38 °C).[19][dead link] The heat liquefies the fat to help separate lean beef from fat[19][dead link] and other by-products.[20] The recovered beef material is processed, heated, and treated with gaseous ammonia[21] or citric acid to kill E. coli, salmonella, and other bacteria. Gaseous ammonia in contact with the water in the meat produces ammonium hydroxide.[21] The product is finely ground, compressed into pellets[22] or blocks, flash frozen and then shipped for use as an additive.[23][24]

Rick Jochum, a spokesperson for Beef Products Inc. (BPI) stated that the finished product is 94 to 97 percent lean beef, and has a nutritional value comparable to 90 percent lean ground beef.[22] Furthermore, it was stated that the product's content is very high in protein, is low in fat, and contains iron, zinc and B vitamins.[22] Jochum also said that BPI's product does not contain cow intestines or connective tissue such as tendons.[22] Food editor and cookbook author J.M. Hirsh described it as highly mealy with bits and studs of cartilage-like matter,[25] and a USDA microbiologist says the product does contain connective tissue "instead of muscle" and thus it is "not meat" and is "not nutritionally equivalent" to ground beef.[26]

Most of the product is produced and sold by BPI, Cargill Meat Solutions, and Tyson Foods.[27][28] The product sold by BPI introduces the trimmings to ammonium hydroxide (a solution of ammonia in water), while the Cargill product uses citric acid instead of ammonium hydroxide.[29] Part of the manufacturing process at BPI includes extruding the material through long tubes that are thinner than a pencil, during which time the meat is exposed to gaseous ammonia.[21][30]

In April 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) received requests from beef processors to allow voluntary labeling of products that contain the additive, and has stated that it plans to approve this practice after checks for the accuracy of the labels are undertaken.[31]

Legal status in various countries[edit]

In the United States, the additive itself cannot legally be sold directly to consumers. However, it can constitute up to 15 percent of ground beef without additional labeling,[23] and it can also be added to other meat products such as beef-based processed meats.[23] Prior to the invention of the disinfection process, beef scraps could not be processed to reduce or remove the fat, bone fragments or other non-beef components and could be sold for other uses only, such as pet food or as an ingredient for cooking oil.[15]

Because of the use of ammonium hydroxide in its processing, the product is not permitted in Canada.[32] In a statement, Health Canada stated that: "Ammonia is not permitted in Canada to be used in ground beef or meats during their production." Such products also may not be imported, as Canadian law requires that imported meat products meet the same standards and requirements as domestic meat.[32][33] Canada does allow Finely Textured Meat (FTM) to be "used in the preparation of ground meat" and "identified as ground meat" under certain conditions.[34] The product does not meet the legal requirements for sale in the United Kingdom,[35] and the European Union has banned it[36][37] and other mechanically separated meats for human consumption.[38][39]


In 1990, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) approved the use of the basic technology for manufacturing the product. Boneless beef trimmings are brought to 107–109 °F (41.7–42.7 °C), the fat is removed by centrifugal force, and the remaining product is flash frozen to 15 °F (−9.4 °C) in 90 seconds in a roller press freezer.[40] At the time, the FSIS approved calling the remaining product "meat", although an FSIS microbiologist claimed it contains both muscle and connective tissue.[26]

In 1994, in response to public health concerns over pathogenic E. coli in beef, the founder of BPI, Eldon Roth, began work on the "pH Enhancement System," which disinfects meat using injected anhydrous ammonia in gaseous form,[27][40][41] rapid freezing to 28 °F (−2.2 °C),[40] and mechanical stress.[40] The anhydrous ammonia sharply increases the pH and damages microscopic organisms, the freezing causes ice crystals to form and puncture the organisms' weakened cell walls, and the mechanical stress destroys the organisms altogether.[40] In 2001, the FSIS approved the gaseous disinfection system as an intermediate step before the roller press freezer,[40] and approved the disinfected product for human consumption, as an additive.[41] The FSIS agreed with BPI's suggestion that the ammonia was a "processing agent" that did not need to be listed on labels as an ingredient.[27][40]

USDA FSIS microbiologists Carl Custer and Gerald Zirnstein stated that they argued against the product's approval for human consumption, saying that it was not "meat" and was actually "salvage",[8] and that the USDA should seek independent verification of its safety,[27] but they were overruled.[8] BPI did commission a study of the disinfection process's effectiveness and safety in 2003; the Iowa State University researchers found no issues of concern in the product or in ground beef containing it.[27][40]

The term "pink slime", a reference to the product's "distinctive look,"[42] was coined in 2002 by Dr. Zirnstein in an internal e-mail.[26][27][43] Expressing concern that ammonia should be mentioned on the labels of packaged ground beef to which the treated trimmings are added, Zirnstein stated "I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling."[27] He later stated that his main concern was that connective tissue is not "meat", and that ground beef to which the product had been added should not be called ground beef, since it is not nutritionally equivalent to regular ground beef.[26] As mentioned, BPI says its product does not contain connective tissue.

In 2007, the USDA determined the disinfection process was so effective that it would be exempt from "routine testing of meat used in hamburger sold to the general public."[27]

A December 2009 New York Times investigative piece questioned the safety of the meat treated by this process, pointing to occasions in which process adjustments were not effective.[27] This article included the first public use of the term "pink slime" as a pejorative.[44] In January 2010, The New York Times published an editorial reiterating the concerns posed in the news article while noting that no meat produced by Beef Products Inc. has been linked to any illnesses or outbreaks.[45]


A series of reports in March 2012 from ABC News created controversy, brought widespread public attention to and raised consumer concerns about the product.[15][23] It was reported at that time that 70 percent of ground beef sold in U.S. supermarkets contained the additive, and that the USDA considered it as meat.[8] A 2008 Washington Post article stated that in ground beef containing the filler, the amount can be up to 25 percent, but usually does not exceed this percentage.[46] The product has been described as "essentially scrap meat pieces compressed together and treated with an antibacterial agent."[47] The USDA issued a statement that pink slime was safe and had been included in consumer products for some time, and its Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety Elisabeth A. Hagen stated that "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."[1] Nevertheless, many grocery stores and supermarkets, including the nation's three largest chains, announced that they would no longer sell products containing the additive.[48] Some grocery companies, restaurants and school districts discontinued the sale and provision of beef containing the additive after the media reports,.[49] Among consumers, media reporting significantly reduced its acceptance as an additive to ground beef,[50] and some beef processors have made plans to label products that contain the additive to alleviate these concerns and restore consumer confidence.[51]

In the U.S., beef that contains up to 15 percent of the product can be labeled as "100% ground beef."[52][53] Currently in the U.S., only if a USDA Organic label is present can consumers know that beef contains no "pink slime."[23] The nature of the product and the manner in which it is processed led to concerns that it might be a risk to human health, despite the fact that there have been no reported cases of foodborne illnesses due to consumption of the product.[54][55][56] Source areas from cattle for the product production may include, but are not limited to, the most contaminated portions of cattle,[16] such as near the hide.[23][57]

It has been referred to as "an unappetizing example of industrialized food production."[58] The product has been characterized as "...unappetizing, but perhaps not more so than other things that are routinely part of hamburger" by Sarah Klein, an attorney for the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.[59] Nutritionist Andy Bellatti has referred to the product as " of many symptoms of a broken food system."[60] Food policy writer Tom Laskawy has noted that the use of ammonium hydroxide is only one of several chemicals routinely added to industrially produced meat in the United States.[61] The reaction against the product has also been partially credited to Bettina Siegel's petition that has landed over a quarter million signatures to ban it in school lunches.[23]

Some consumer advocacy groups have pressed for its elimination or for mandatory disclosure of additives in beef,[16][23][62][63][64] but a spokesperson from Beef Products Inc. at the time said there was no need for any additional labeling, asking "What should we label it? It's 100 percent beef, what do you want us to label it? I'm not prepared to say it's anything other than beef, because it's 100 percent beef."[65] Other consumer advocacy groups, notably the National Consumers League, have expressed dismay at the popular reaction against the product, and especially the plant closures "because of business the company has lost to very serious misinformation, widely disseminated by the media, about its product, lean finely textured beef (LFTB)."[66] Similarly, the Consumer Federation of America said the plant closures were "unfortunate" and expressed concern that the product might be replaced in ground beef with "something that has not been processed to assure the same level of safety."[67]

Consumer concerns[edit]

U.S. consumers have expressed concerns that ground beef which contains the product is not labeled as such, and that consumers are currently unable to make informed purchasing decisions due to this lack of product labeling.[16] Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey called upon the USDA to institute mandatory labeling guidelines for ground beef sold in supermarkets, so consumers can make informed purchasing decisions.[57] A Harris Interactive survey commissioned by Red Robin[68][69] and released on April 4, 2012, found that 88 percent of U.S. adults were aware of the "pink slime" issue, and that of those who were aware, 76 percent indicated that they were "at least somewhat concerned," with 30 percent "extremely concerned." 53 percent of respondents who stated that they were aware of pink slime took some action, such as researching ground beef they purchase or consume, or decreasing or eliminating ground beef consumption.[70]

Manufacturer Beef Products Inc. (BPI) and meat industry organizations addressed public concerns by stating that the additive, though processed, is actually "lean beef" that simply was not able to be reclaimed through traditional slaughterhouse practices until newer technologies became available approximately 20 years ago.[16][23][64] With regard to public concerns over the use of ammonium hydroxide, BPI noted that its use as an anti-microbial agent is approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The use of ammonium hydroxide is included on the FDA's list of GRAS (generally recognized as safe) procedures, and is used in similar applications for numerous other food products, including puddings and baked goods.[71]

Effect on the meat industry[edit]

On March 25, 2012, BPI announced it would suspend operations at three of its four plants.[24][72] The three plants produced a total of about 900,000 pounds of the product per day.[73] On May 8, 2012, BPI announced that it would be closing three of its four plants, effective May 25.[74]

On April 3, 2012, U.S. cattle futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange were at a 3.5-month low, which was partially attributed to the "pink slime" controversy. Livestock traders stated that: "It has put a dent in demand. It is bullish for live cattle over the long-term, but short-term it is certainly negative."[75][76]

It is also manufactured by AFA Foods and Cargill.[77] AFA filed for bankruptcy stating that it was due to the pink slime controversy.[77] Cargill significantly cut production of the product and, "warned [that] the public's resistance to the filler could lead to higher hamburger prices this barbecue season" in April 2012.[77]

Politician and media plant tour[edit]

Iowa governor Terry Branstad is a proponent of the product's use in beef products.

Following the suspension of operations at three out of four BPI plants, members of the media and leaders were invited by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad to tour the BPI facility that remained open in South Sioux City, Nebraska.[64][78] The founders of BPI gave campaign contributions to Branstad in 2010,[64] and to other candidates' campaigns.[79] Brandstad stated to ABC News that the contributions were not a factor in his decision regarding having the event.[64] Texas Governor Rick Perry, Nebraska Lieutenant Governor Rick Sheehy, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, and South Dakota Lieutenant Governor Matt Michels,[80] toured the South Sioux City, Nebraska, plant in an attempt to allay "inaccurate information" that they stated as having caused "an unnecessary panic among consumers."[81] The publicity tour emerged with the promotional slogan, "Dude, it's beef!"[64] News reporters were not allowed to ask employees at BPI any questions during the tour.[64] BPI asserts that social media and ABC News "grossly misrepresented" their product.[64] BPI eventually sued ABC News for defamation.[82]

On March 28, 2012, Branstad stated, "The problem is, we take this off the market, then we end up with a fatter product that’s going to cost more and it’s going to increase the obesity problem in this country."[81] Safeway and other retailers that have removed the product from their shelves or product lines have stated they will not raise the price of their beef.[23] Branstad also stated that he would recommend that Iowa state public schools continue to use ground beef which contains the product, and stated plans to "send a letter to the state's public schools, encouraging them to continue to buy LFTB."[83]

Abstention and product divestment[edit]

Food manufacturers[edit]

Several U.S. food manufacturers have publicly stated that they do not use the product in their products, including ConAgra Foods Inc., Sara Lee Corporation and Kraft Foods Inc.[84]

Grocery retailers[edit]

Many meat retailers stated that they either did not use the product, or would cease using it.[85]

Additionally, the "pink slime" press coverage was reported to have led to increased business in some small neighborhood markets, due to consumer concerns about the additive.[86]


Many fast food chains stopped use of the product after the controversy arose, or stated that they had not used the product before.[70][87][88][89]

USDA overview[edit]

After some parents and consumer advocates insisted the product be removed from public schools, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) indicated that it would give school districts the option of choosing between ground beef with or without the additive.[24][90][91] The USDA stated in March 2012 that beginning in fall 2012, the U.S. National School Lunch Program will allow school districts to decide whether or not to purchase ground beef containing the filler.[92] On March 22, 2012, 41 Democrats in Congress, led by Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine, wrote a letter to United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (the head of the USDA), writing that "creating a two-tiered school lunch program where kids in less affluent communities get served this low-grade slurry is wrong" and urging its elimination from all public-school lunches.[93][94]

While some school districts have their own suppliers, many school districts purchase beef directly from the USDA and so have no way to know what is in the beef.[93] It was reported that for the year 2012, the USDA has planned on purchasing 7 million pounds of lean beef trimmings for the U.S. national school lunch program.[26] USDA spokesman Mike Jarvis stated that of the 117 million pounds of beef ordered nationally for the school lunch program last year, six percent was this filler.[93] An analysis of California Department of Education data obtained by California Watch indicated that "anywhere from none to nearly 3 million pounds of beef from the USDA that was served in California schools last year could have been lean finely textured beef."[93] According to the USDA, the cost differential between ground beef with and without the additive has been estimated at approximately 3%.[93]

Senator Jon Tester of Montana issued a news release in March 2012 urging Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to remove "pink slime" from school lunches and replace it with "high-quality Montana beef."[95] Tester stated that he planned to include provisions in the upcoming farm bill that would allow schools more flexibility in using USDA commodity dollars, to increase options in purchasing locally grown and produced foods.[95]

School official responses[edit]

Following the USDA announcement to allow choices in purchasing decisions for ground beef, many school districts stated that they would opt out of serving ground beef with the filler.[92][96]

By June 2012, forty-seven of fifty states declined to purchase any of the product for the 2012–2013 school year while South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa chose to continue buying it.[97]

Effect on production[edit]

In March 2012 BPI suspended production at three of its four plants. The company announced that it was in "crisis planning" and production of the beef product was halved.[24] On April 2, 2012, another producer, AFA Foods, a ground-beef processor owned by Yucaipa Companies, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing "ongoing media attention" that has "dramatically reduced the demand for all ground beef products."[98][99]

BPI lawsuit[edit]

On September 13, 2012, Beef Products Inc. (BPI) announced that it filed a $1.2 billion lawsuit against ABC News, three reporters (Diane Sawyer, Jim Avila and David Kerley) and others, claiming damages as a result of their reports on pink slime. "ABC News was just one of many media outlets reporting on the controversial product earlier this year, but BPI has focused in on the media giant for what it calls a 'concerted disinformation campaign' against LFTB."[100] It was reported that BPI will seek over $1 billion in compensatory and statutory damages, along with punitive damages for "defamation, product and food disparagement, and tortious interference with business relationships."[100] BPI said that ABC News made nearly "200 false, misleading and defamatory statements, repeated continuously during a month-long disinformation campaign..."[100]

ABC News denied BPI's claims. "The lawsuit is without merit," Jeffrey W. Schneider, the news station's senior vice president, said in a brief statement. "We will contest it vigorously."[101] ABC News sought to have the case removed from state to federal court.[102] In June 2013, a federal judge sent the lawsuit back to state court.[103]

On March 27, 2014, Judge Cheryle Gering dismissed all of ABC News' arguments, and said, according to the Christian Science Monitor, that " couching damning reporting with a single sentence about how authorities say the product is safe and nutritious" does not protect ABC News from liability.[104]

In mass media[edit]

An episode of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, aired on April 12, 2011, depicted Jamie Oliver decrying the use of pink slime in the food supply and in school lunches.[105][106] In the episode, Oliver douses beef trimmings in liquid ammonia while explaining what the product is and why he is disgusted with it.[106] Oliver has stated, "Everyone who is told about pink slime doesn't like it in their food—school kids, soldiers, senior citizens all hate it."[107] The American Meat Institute and Beef Products Inc. retorted with a YouTube video featuring Dr. Gary Acuff of Texas A&M University questioning some of Oliver's statements and promoting the additive.[13][108]

In an Associated Press review, food editor and cookbook author J.M. Hirsh compared the taste of pink slime-containing hamburgers against traditional, or "real," hamburgers. He described the filler-containing burgers as smelling the same, but being less juicy and highly mealy with bits and studs of cartilage–like matter.[25]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]


Journalism reports[edit]


External links[edit]

External images
Pink slime kibble
Giant rolls of pink slime being flash frozen
A frozen brick of pink slime, the finished product
A brick of pink slime being sliced
An image of pink slime used by the meat industry association
External video
(March 26, 2012). "'Pink Slime' Manufacturer Suspends Operations." ABC News.
(Mar 16, 2012). "The Facts About Lean Finely Textured Beef." American Meat Institute