- In 2012, ABC News published an exposé that revealed a beef filler product that looked like pink slime could be found in upward of 70 percent of ground beef sold in the U.S.
- Pink slime, technically called “lean, finely textured beef” (LFTB), is made from beef and fat trimmings that are separated in a centrifuge and treated with ammonia to kill pathogens
- The product’s maker asked the USDA to reconsider pink slime’s classification, which led to the USDA conducting a monthslong review and quietly changing its labeling requirements
- According to a ruling by the USDA, pink slime can now be labeled as simply “ground beef”
- With the USDA’s decision that LFTB can simply be called “ground beef,” despite its appearance as a strange, pink playing dough-like blob, it will be even harder, if not impossible, to know whether the ground beef at your grocery store or favorite restaurant contains it
- Sourcing your foods from a local farmer is one of the best ways to avoid pink slime and other questionable additives in your food
In 2012, ABC News published an exposé that revealed a beef filler product that looked eerily similar to pink slime could be found in upward of 70 percent of ground beef sold in the U.S. The moniker quickly took off, and ultimately cost ABC News a reported $177 million in settlement costs, after the pink slime’s maker, South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc. (BPI), sued them for defamation.
The pink-colored sludge not only can still be found in ground beef but now, according to a ruling by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), can be labeled simply as “ground beef.” Most consumers in the market for ground beef would have a hard time stomaching the idea of creating a hamburger out of this pink beef product, so why has the U.S. government greenlighted its “ground beef” label?
The product apparently “meets the regulatory definition of ground beef under the law,” but there’s good reason why this “soft serve” ground beef product is still stirring up controversy more than a decade after the ABC News investigation.
What Is ‘Pink Slime’ Ground Beef?
The meat product that looks like pink slime is technically called “lean, finely textured beef” (LFTB), according to BPI. It’s made from beef trimmings once reserved for pet food, from the scraps of fat that are cut off bones. Those scraps inevitably have a bit of meat left on them, and BPI realized it could heat them up and then use a centrifuge to separate the bits of meat from the fat.
The resulting LFTB, sometimes referred to as “boneless beef trimmings,” is sterilized using an ammonia puff then sold to companies who mix the filler product with their ground beef. LFTB is a sought-after product by meatpackers because it’s 95 percent lean with only 5 percent fat.
In the U.S., ground beef must be no more than 30 percent fat, so adding in LFTB is a simple way to lower the fat content of ground beef products. It’s also a recipe for spreading foodborne illness, as meat and fat trimmings come from multiple animals.
According to Consumer Reports, this contributes to the high bacteria levels often found in ground beef, as “meat from a single contaminated cow can end up in many packages of ground beef.”
Part of the original controversy centered around the fact that this highly processed beef product could exist in ground beef without being disclosed, and now the USDA will allow it to continue. Further, BFI could even sell LFTB directly to consumers, labeled as ground beef, although it’s unclear if they have plans to do so.
Beef Trimmings Labeled a High-Risk Product
LFTB is used in many commercial ground beef products sold at fast-food chains, grocery stores, hospitals and schools. Prior to 2012, LFTB was widely used in school lunches, with the USDA purchasing it in massive quantities.
Following the 2012 media coverage of pink slime, 47 states dropped out of the USDA’s option to receive LFTB for their school lunch programs. By September 2013, however, four of those states decided to opt back in, with cost being a major factor.
“Lean finely textured beef brings down the cost of ground beef by about 3 percent, which can add up quickly in a program that feeds more than 31 million school children each day,” Politico reported.
Both BFI and the USDA claim the processed beef trimmings are safe, but microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein, a former USDA scientist who coined the term “pink slime,” and food scientist colleague Carl Custer concluded in a study that the pink slime is a “high risk product,” as the trimmings come from parts of the cow that are most likely to be contaminated with dangerous bacteria like E. coli.
Government and industry records obtained by The New York Times found, in fact, that in testing LFTB for the school lunch program, E. coli and salmonella showed up three and 48 times, respectively, between 2005 and 2012, showing that the ammonia treatment is not foolproof.
In testimony during the BPI versus ABC News trial, Zirnstein explained why he called it pink slime to begin with: “Because it looks pink and I already said the way to control it, the product is uncontrollable unless it’s frozen on a drone or liquid nitrogen … The L[F]BT looked pretty weird, so I have to say yeah I didn’t have a very good impression when I first saw it.”
Zirnstein did not agree that the meat product should have been used in ground beef, especially without labeling, stating that it contains excess collagen, making it a lower quality protein than pure ground beef. He stated:
“It’s lost the functionality of meat. It has a different composition entirely of meat. Just a lot of different things that doesn’t really meet the definition … It should not have been included in ground beef or hamburger unless you were going to be fair to the consumer and let them know there was something else in their with lower quality.”
No Way of Knowing Which Products Contain Pink Slime
McDonald’s and many major grocery chains vowed to stop using the pink slime in 2012 after all the negative publicity, causing sales to plummet. But by 2014, sales began to creep back up, and BFI even had so much demand that they reopened one of its previously shut down plants.
As of 2014, production of LFTB doubled since its low in 2012, but, as the Los Angeles Times reported, no one was fessing up to using it. “As to who’s using it now, that’s a mystery. McDonald’s said in May  that it still wasn’t using pink slime,” business columnist David Lazarus reported. “In fact, I couldn’t find a single company that’s admitted using it again. But obviously someone is. Otherwise production of pink slime wouldn’t be up 100 percent.”
Now with the USDA’s decision that LFTB can simply be called “ground beef,” despite its appearance as a strange, pink playing dough-like blob, it will be even harder, if not impossible, to know whether the ground beef at your grocery store or favorite restaurant contains it.
In case there was any doubt, it was BFI that asked the USDA to reconsider pink slime’s classification, which led to the USDA conducting a monthslong review and quietly changing its labeling requirements. In December 2018, BFI let its suppliers know of the change that the product formerly known to the public as pink slime could now be called ground beef.
Prior to the USDA’s reclassification, BFI created a major advertising campaign called “Dude, it’s beef!” aimed at changing pink slime’s image. According to Modern Farmer, the campaign was promoted not only by BFI but also “by politicians in states with large cattle industries, like Texas.”
Further, when LFTB was originally allowed to be called “meat,” it was courtesy of USDA officials once again, including one in particular who later went on to earn millions while serving on BPI’s board of directors. Although the article has since been removed from the ABC website, it’s still “live” on YouTube. In it, ABC News reports:
“The ‘pink slime’ does not have to appear on the label because, over objections of its own scientists, USDA officials with links to the beef industry labeled pink slime meat. ‘The under secretary said, ‘it’s pink, therefore it’s meat,’’ Custer told ABC News.
ABC News has learned the woman who made the decision to OK the mix is a former undersecretary of agriculture, Joann Smith — a call that led to hundred of millions of dollars for Beef Products Inc., the makers of pink slime. When Smith stepped down from the USDA in 1993, BPI’s principal major supplier appointed her to its board of directors, where she made at least $1.2 million over 17 years.”
After the report was aired, BPI filed a $1.9 billion lawsuit against ABC for defamation, claiming the company had lost business over ABC’s depiction of pink slime as unsafe.
Had a jury returned a verdict in favor of BPI, the news agency could have faced nearly $6 billion in penalties under a South Dakota food libel law, but three weeks into the trial, Disney, which owns the network, disclosed that they had paid $177 million in a settlement with BPI.
According to Fortune, the details of the settlement were confidential, but it appeared that Disney’s payment was an adjunct to an unspecified amount that insurers paid. In a follow-up statement, ABC said that they continue to stand by their reporting and that they had “accurately presented the facts and views of knowledgeable people.”
More Reasons to Avoid CAFO Meat
Most of the ground beef produced with pink slime fillers comes from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which themselves come with a litany of problems, not the least of which is the huge quantities of waste produced and how it’s managed.
The trickle-down of toxins from industrial agriculture affects all of us on the planet, from contaminated drinking water and produce to the spread of antibiotic-resistant disease, which is proliferated by the use of low-dose antibiotics in animal feed.
CAFOs are also directly contributing to the growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is a serious and increasing threat to marine life, while pesticide usage and other industrialized farming methods may be killing off insects at an alarming rate.
All of these complex problems have a common thread, and that is that their solution lies in changing agricultural practices from industrial to regenerative. Choosing grass fed products like grass fed beef and bison over that raised in CAFOs is a solution that we can all take part in — and it’s also one of the best ways to avoid pink slime in your beef.
Where to Find Real, Filler-Free Ground Beef
As long as there are people willing to buy cheap, “imitation” meats made from beef trimmings formerly regarded as scraps, the industry will continue to produce it. The average American ate about 800 burgers’ worth of beef in 2018, or about 222 pounds. Where you get this beef, how it’s raised and, ultimately, the way it is prepared make all the difference in how it affects your health and the environment.
Source matters — greatly — and part of that includes knowing where your beef was raised. You’ll want to avoid getting your beef from so-called “hamburger central,” or CAFOs, instead opting for organic, grass fed beef that’s raised without antibiotics and produced without fillers like pink slime.
Sourcing your foods from a local farmer is one of the best ways to do so, and you can also look for the American Grassfed Association (AGA) logo, which allows for greater transparency and conformity and is intended to ensure the humane treatment of animals and to meet consumer expectations about grass fed meat and dairy, while being feasible for small farmers to achieve.
As far back as 2009, Zirnstein said he had doubts about “pink slime,” writing in an email, “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.”
Now, 10 years later, pink slime will be labeled as ground beef with the USDA’s approval. If you want to eat ground beef that’s just that — ground beef without fillers — find a local farmer near you — or at the very least call your supermarket and ask them if their ground beef products contain it.