The hype is false; beef is safe, nutritious

Mary Mertz

By A Contributor

Let’s give credit where credit is due.  Whoever first came up with the idea of publicizing the term “pink slime” was a media genius. Green, blue, pink… doesn’t matter; slime is one word that brings forth truly negative images. People don’t usually associate slimy things with what they put into their mouths (gummy worms or oysters on the half shell being exceptions).

The derogatory term referenced above was first used in 2001. Only recently, however, has it been used to wreak havoc on the beef industry.  This was done by creating an unfair negative fervor over a long accepted, safe and trusted process for putting lean beef product on our tables. The public has been bombarded with extreme scare tactics meant to disgust and appall even the most ardent of meat lovers. There is one catch to the hype. It is all a fallacy. 

What happens when people are given misleading information by national broadcasts that seem bolstered by ratings that go higher the more the public is alarmed? How do you combat something once it has gone viral? Unfortunately, the truth and the facts sometimes just aren’t enough to turn around a perception that has been introduced into one’s consciousness. Deception can sometimes be that brilliant.

The meat that is being pulled from production and labeled with a “scarlet letter” in grocery stores is referred to as “lean beef trimmings” or “lean finely textured beef.” These are cuts from the beef animal that 20 years ago could not be used for food but for two decades have been successfully processed in a way to salvage the beef, eliminate the fat and protect the product from bacteria.  The latter is done by using a “spritz” of ammonium hydroxide in gas form. Note that ammonium hydroxide is used in the processing of other products as well, such as chocolates and cheeses. Heaven help us if we start pulling those off the shelf. I’m serious.  Cheese and chocolate are staples in my life and I’m glad they are bacteria free.

But the real audience caught by the sensationalists in this case was moms. Feeding children wholesome, nutritious foods is a top priority for all parents. Even a whisper of something foul in the school lunch program is going to hit home.

When it was reported that schools were buying ammonia laden ground beef, people were rightly concerned. In fact, it is only in some cases that a small, safe amount of ammonia gas or citric acid is used in the production process — and it is done to reduce bacteria. 

When steaks and roasts are cut, there is “trim” that becomes ground beef. The companies supplying lean finely textured beef use a process to remove a lot of the fat from the lean beef in the trim, which is then added to ground beef as a concentrated lean source of protein. I believe that our kids were in fact eating lean, safe meat at school. Pulling this product from shelves is not only unnecessary, but will result in having to process 1.5 million more cattle a year to make up for the lost inventory.

This situation should infuriate all of us. It is a case of being inundated by inaccuracies.  I’ve done my homework and am saddened this happened. This episode shows us how little we know about how our food is processed, but it also shows us how fast we are to jump on the panic bandwagon. Again, lean beef trimmings have been produced for 20 years. What is new to the consumer is the use of an awful catch phrase that ignited the airwaves like wildfire. The outrage against the beef product stemmed more from the unpleasantness of the term than any factual reasoning. The health benefits of the product were ignored.

From what I understand, there will now be labels identifying lean finely textured beef.  That’s fine. People love labels. I would suggest checking for more information on this subject. 

This fire will die out eventually as more and more consumers educate themselves about how all their food is prepared and processed. We were given a greater assurance of leaner, safer, more affordable beef when the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the system for lean beef trimmings years ago. Our fears of salmonella and e.coli were drastically reduced. It is what the public wanted, and the public will always get what it wants.

Let’s just hope that when the next panic bandwagon pulls up, consumers are willing to do their homework before they jump on board. 

Mary Mertz was born and raised in Chicago and now lives and works for the Mertz family farm east of Manhattan.

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