Dueling voices over LFTB

Apr 13, 2012

The public-relations war over lean finely textured beef (LFTB) continued last week as hundreds of Iowa State University (ISU) students joined faculty and state political leaders to slam what they called poisoned media coverage against a safe beef product.

“Science and facts are on our side,” said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, sporting a “Dude It’s Beef!” t-shirt. “There are those who stand against us who use scare tactics trying to get the American people to stop eating this quality product. It’s time to end the smear campaign and stop the use of inaccurate and inappropriate words.”

In a sign that the publicrelations battle is far from won, a smaller group of about 40 family-farm activists and consumers also gathered outside the main event to criticize politicians, the university and production agriculture for supporting LFTB. Several champions of small farmers spoke at this smaller gathering.

Branstad, who has become a vocal supporter of LFTB, said Beef Products Inc. (BPI) facilities were idle in three states, which included laying off more than 200 workers in Iowa. He said it is important to counter misinformation in the media and social media with factual information about the safety and production of the groundbeef product. Branstad said BPI had a track record of two decades of safety before being derailed by the term “pink slime” and continuing negative coverage of the product.

Following criticism of LFTB, USDA first told schools across the country they could purchase beef without the product. Then USDA announced last week that companies could label ground beef that does not contain the filler.

Previously, Branstad led a delegation of governors and lieutenant governors to a BPI facility in Nebraska to counter criticism. Last Tuesday’s rally was organized by a student group at ISU.

LFTB has been used in roughly 70 percent of all ground beef products. After processing, the meat is as much as 95 percent lean, which then helps lower the fat content when blended with fattier ground beef.

Jim Dickson, a microbiologist at ISU, has worked with BPI for the past decade on its ammonia-application process used to kill bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella. In producing LFTB, trimmings are warmed to live-cattle temperatures, spun to separate the lean trimmings from fat, injected with the ammonia gas, then frozen. The whole process takes about 10 minutes, Dickson said.

Dickson criticized the pink material used in imagery of “pink slime,” saying it looks nothing like the actual LFTB. Further, the household ammonia poured on ground beef last year by a celebrity chef is nothing like the actual process of ammonia-gas injections. Dickson spoke a great deal about the ammonia process, which has been a major source of controversy.

“The ammonia process is used to enhance the safety of the product,” he said. “It’s a cost to the company.”

Another part of the story not covered very well, Dickson said, is the testing program used to ensure the safety of LFTB. “Beef Products has a testing program beyond anything I have ever seen in the food industry,” he said.

Janet Riley, a vice president of public relations for the American Meat Institute, said the controversy has dominated the last month, but has largely been driven by one major news source, ABC News, which continues to do stories on LFTB even though the network acknowledges there is no food safety issue.

“We have obsessed about an issue that really shouldn’t be one,” Riley said.

Still, some members of Congress are calling for USDA to require mandatory labeling of LFTB. Schools across the country are refusing to buy the product, though Branstad has said that hasn’t happened in Iowa thus far.

Before the larger rally, the smaller demonstration drew farmer and rancher critics of the ammonia process. Tom Giessel, a member of the Kansas Farmers Union, said he was “appalled” that elected officials would support such industrialization in food, and he asked what would agriculture and politicians support next in food production.

“When we butchered when I was a kid, my dad didn’t say to go to town and get some anhydrous ammonia because we have to butcher today,” Giessel said.

Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the IISU Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, said the controversy is not necessarily about the technology or food safety, but transparency and the relationship between food producers and consumers.

“We’re not being fully transparent with the public about how our food is being made,” Kirschenmann said.

Iowa farmer George Naylor said the meat filler allows packers to buy fewer cattle at lower prices before products such as LFTB can be blended into a final ground-beef product.

“Make no mistake, pink slime and our industrial food supply are on trial,” Naylor said.

Naylor also held a sign of an anhydrous ammonia fertilizer tank to demonstrate the application of the ammonia. — Chris Clayton, DTN