Nearly two decades ago, the beef industry did a sensible thing. It began converting beef scraps into usable lean beef that was then added to ground beef.
The product, called lean finely textured beef, provided significant benefits. The industry was able to use more beef components safely and efficiently, and consumers paid lower prices.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, as part of its regulatory responsibility, examined the production process and said the additive is safe. The use of ammonia to kill bacteria in the production raises no concerns about food safety, the USDA said.
Lean finely textured beef became widely used in school lunches and fast-food restaurants. Schools benefited not only from the lower costs but also because the additive makes ground beef less fatty.
Then, last year, the hysteria struck.
Social media campaigns and activist documentaries whipped up a scare campaign against lean finely textured beef, labeling it “pink slime.” Critics presented no serious evidence that the additive was unsafe, but some national media outlets jumped on board and hyped the issue.
School districts across the country backed away from buying the beef additive, leaving only three states — Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota — that were still using the product in school lunches. As purchases plummeted, Beef Products Inc. had to close plants in Iowa, Kansas and Texas. An irresponsible scare campaign cost hundreds of jobs.
With the start of the school year this fall, four more states are using the product in their school lunches: Illinois, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Texas. The cost savings are considerable given that the additive reduces ground beef production costs by about 3 cents a pound.
News reports of the purchases by those four states have stirred up rumblings of complaint from the usual quarters. Yet, when the news website Politico recently checked with officials with the USDA, School Nutrition Association (which represents food service directors) and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, none said they had concerns about the additive’s safety or nutrition. “Mostly it’s just that parents thought it was gross,” said an official with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
That’s a lousy justification for throwing beef-industry employees out of work and hurling unfounded accusations at the beef industry.
And it’s a good reason for Americans to pause and cast a skeptical eye the next time someone tries to whip up national hysteria based on emotional reaction rather than scientific fact.