“Pink Slime”—Has It Been Unjustly Maligned?

Pink SlimeWhat’s in a name—or a nickname?  A lot.  When applied to food, it can have a profound impact upon consumer reaction.  Consider the nickname “pink slime.”  Sounds disgusting, doesn’t it?  You wouldn’t want your kid eating it in his/her school lunch, right?  Yet, the USDA has just purchased $7 million of the stuff for school lunches.  “Horrors! ” you say.  “More evidence that government agencies don’t know what they’re doing.” But wait.  What if I tell you that  YOU’VE probably been eating and enjoying this product for many years?  Yep.  If you’ve eaten fast food hamburgers from time to time, you’ve likely consumed “pink slime” (“lean beef trimmings”) with relish (or maybe just catsup).


In recent weeks, this highly processed meat product has been getting a lot of attention from TV news, print media, and online sites. The descriptions of the process have shocked consumers. Activist groups such as CREDO Action are urging people  to sign a petition telling the USDA to stop putting “lean beef trimmings” in school lunches. The website CREDO Action calls the product “dangerous,” but I haven’t found one scientist that agrees with that assessment.


In January, McDonald’s announced that it would discontinue using the product in its burgers, no doubt in response to bad publicity and consumer disapproval rather than any defect in the product itself. Many experts in the food industry have defended the product as safe and an excellent provider of inexpensive protein, a way for the public to get $1 burgers.  So what’s going on? Is this product something to be grateful for or disgusted by? Let’s find out just what it is, how it’s made, and why it’s been so widely used. 


The unkind nickname “pink slime” derives from its color and its liquefied state at one stage of its processing. The product is made from boneless lean beef trimmings (BLBT) that create what the beef industry calls “lean finely textured beef.”  According to Gerald Zirnstein, a former USDA scientist, 70% of ground beef sold in U.S. supermarkets contains BLBT.  


The website Supermarket News describes the product as follows: “…salvage trimmings of beef that are sprayed with ammonia to kill bacteria, then simmered at low heat and then spun in a centrifuge to separate out excess fat.”  Much has been made of the use of ammonia, but it cannot harm the consumer since it dissipates and is not present in the finished product.  Also, food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser (one of our site’s Advisory Board members) points this out: “Ammonia is naturally found in meats. Although this meat product isn’t made using natural ammonia, it uses the same chemicals.  The ammonia is added as a safety step to kill bacteria.  Because of this step, BPI’s Boneless Lean is exceptionally safe for the consumer.”


The company that produces lean beef trimmings—Beef Products, Inc. –calls its product BPI® Boneless Lean Beef and says it’s approximately 94% lean beef.  It’s used in beef patties, cooked meats, luncheon meats, and other foods, thereby contributing to nearly 20 billion meals per year.  BPI has been around since 1971 and is the world’s leading producer of lean beef made from fresh beef trimmings. 


BPI is the brainchild of Eldon Roth, who has a patent on his product.  Dr. Bowser has visited the plant and studied its manufacturing process. He gives the whole operation high praise.  He calls Roth “a genius” and the scientists working with him “top-notch.” The plant itself, Bowser says, is quite high tech with a lot of well-made equipment and excellent refrigeration facilities.  The meat that the facility processes comes from a meat-processing plant right next door, and the trimmings are conveyed from one location to another in a very sanitary manner. Dr. Bowser gives high marks to a company that takes what would otherwise be waste products and increases their value by converting them into something usable. Its production of inexpensive protein benefits society, in his opinion, and others have made the same point.  Yet another plus: BPI provides leaner beef to a too-fat population.


Are you ever been served a patty made up solely of BPI product?  No, and Dr. Bowser explains why: “The product (BPI lean beef) is mixed with ground beef. Because of the fine texture of the lean beef product, there is an upper limit at which it becomes noticeable because it is mushy, so the product is kept at levels below which it can be detected. I believe that the concerns are mainly with mouth feel and appearance. I don't think product has a major influence on the flavor of ground beef, but it is very lean.”


Granted, if you’re a person who distrusts processed food, then obviously you’re not going to approve of this product. But it’s not easy to avoid.  The label on ground beef doesn’t list BPI’s lean meat product as an added ingredient for the simple reason that it is not an additive; it is beef. 


BPI provides more than $250 million in value to the U.S. beef industry and is not likely to close its doors due to a surge of bad publicity. Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter (one of our site’s Advisory Board members) responded laconically to all the criticism thrown at lean beef trimmings: “This is really old news that keeps resurfacing from time to time.” A tempest in a teapot? 




Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D. Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Beefproducts.com  “About Beef Products, Inc.”


Credoaction.com  “Tell the USDA: Stop buying pink slime ‘Lean Beef Trimmings’ for school lunches!”


Cbsnews.com “Report: USDA school lunch meat contains ‘pink slime’”


supermarketnews.com “Whistleblower Claims ‘Pink Slime’ Found in 70% of Supermarket Ground Beef”


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