ABC News called it “pink slime.” Now, USDA says it can be labeled “ground beef.”

On the semantics of a product that scandalized America—and is now on a comeback tour.


by Joe Fassler, New Food Economy            

February 7th, 2019


Beef Products Inc. (BPI), the South Dakota-based meat processing company at the center of 2012’s “pink slime” controversy, just won a long-sought semantic victory. For years, the company has argued that its signature product is safe, wholesome, and not unlike everyday burger meat. Now, BPI has enlisted a powerful ally in its effort to recoup its image and reclassify its product: the federal government.


After a months-long evaluation, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) determined in December that BPI’s signature product—the offering famously called “pink slime” in an ABC News exposé that got the network in a lot of trouble—can be labeled “ground beef.” Legally speaking, it’s now no different from ordinary hamburger, and could even be sold directly to the public.


“After reviewing BPI’s submission of a new product and new production process, FSIS determined that the product meets the regulatory definition of ground beef under the law in 9 CFR 319.15(a) and may be labeled accordingly,” a FSIS spokesperson told me, in an emailed statement.


FSIS calls it a “new” product because BPI’s process has evolved substantially since 2012—though how exactly it has changed is not immediately clear, for reasons I’ll explain.


In case you missed the 2012 ABC News segment that first introduced the term “pink slime” to the public, or don’t remember details from the wave of coverage that followed, here’s some background.


As cattle carcasses are turned into steaks at a processing plant, knife-wielding workers cut fatty edges off the meat. These carcass cuttings, or “trim”—about 1/3 of each animal’s weight —contain small portions of edible meat, which can be used to make ground beef. The challenge is that hamburger makers always have a target fat content in mind. According to USDA, ground beef can’t contain more than 30 percent fat, while “lean” ground beef, for instance, must contain less than 22.5 percent fat. How to make sure that the standard trim coming off cattle—typically 50 percent meat, 50 percent fat—ultimately results in a product that hits the precise fat content required?


That’s where BPI comes in.


BPI has a symbiotic relationship with a Tyson Foods plant in Dakota City, South Dakota, where its facility was built right next to the slaughterhouse. (In the wake of the ABC News report, the company’s orders plunged from 5 million pounds a week to 1.5 million, ultimately forcing BPI to closes the three other plants it maintained across the country.) Tyson’s beef trim is ferried over from the kill floor to BPI’s plant by conveyor, where it’s warmed to about 100 degrees and sent through a centrifuge that separates the fat from the meat. The liquified fat can then be sold as tallow, while the resulting meat—which the industry has called “lean finely textured beef,” or “boneless beef trimmings” in the past—is nearly fatless. BPI says its product is 95 percent lean, so only five percent fat.


That product is then sterilized with a puff of ammonia to kill pathogens, as beef trimmings are especially susceptible to contamination. (Ammonia might sound scary, but it’s a common food additive and processing agent that’s generally regarded to be safe in small amounts.) From there, it’s sold to meatpackers who mix it in with their ground beef to lower the fat content as desired. For decades, it was a booming business, and BPI had claimed that its product was present in over 70 percent of ground beef sold in the U.S. before 2012.


Still, when beef is not just “ground,” but rendered into fine paste through an intensely mechanical process, the question remains: What should we call it? If it can’t be called “pink slime,” what words should we use?


Since 1994, the government’s stance has been clear. Lean finely textured beef (LFTB) has been a “qualified component” of hamburger, meaning it can be included in ground beef without being independently disclosed. But it could not itself be called ground beef, suggesting that, in the eyes of regulators it was something else—a padding or additive, but not the real deal.


Some at USDA weren’t comfortable even with that classification...


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