By Eric Mittenthal, M.S.
Cutting Out the Fat
The last few months have brought unprece- dented attention to lean finely textured beef (LFTB), a product that was unfairly reviled in mainstream and social media as “pink slime.” Some critics have been extreme in their claims,
erroneously calling it a filler, an additive or something
that was previously used in pet food. While there were
a variety of concerns raised about LFTB, at its heart, the
main concern among consumers seemed not to be related to food safety, but to perceived deception. There was
no intention to hide the product, and makers regularly
talked about it to the media. The Washington Post carried
a 2008 Business Section cover story with the headline
“Engineering a Safer Burger” that featured one of the
makers. The same company appears in a high profile film
about the U.S. food supply.
Still, the storm that played out in the media and social
media space offers a forecast of things to come and the
need to respond swiftly, effectively and frequently about
The true story of lean finely
In the case of LFTB, the meat starts with
trimmings, which are small cuts of beef
with fat attached that are not connected
to a bone. To separate the meat from the
fat, the trimmings are warmed to about
100 °F, which is approximately body
temperature. The trimmings are placed
in a centrifuge so the fat is liquefied and
spun away, and the lean meat remains.
At this point in the process, a food safety
intervention is applied to destroy any
pathogenic bacteria that may be present. This intervention is classified as a
processing aid. The U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA) considers processing
aids to be substances that are present in
a meat or poultry product in an insignificant amount that do not and have no
functional or technical effects in the finished meat or poultry product. Examples
of processing aids used during the production of LFTB include citric acid and
ammonia. The resulting beef product is
about 95 percent lean protein but also
has a finer texture than typical ground
beef. For these reasons, LFTB is not sold
as a stand-alone product. Instead, LFTB
is added to raw ground beef typically at a
ratio of 5–15 percent.
What Is LFTB?
At a basic level, LFTB is no different from any other
meat removed from a beef animal. It’s beef. But conversations with reporters and consumers made clear that
consumers perceive that all meat is removed from car-casses by a few cuts from a knife. Of course, the reality is,
meat comes from muscle and muscle can be connected
to bone and fat. Depending on the location of the muscle, removing it can present varying degrees of challenge.
Why LFTB Is Beneficial
There are several benefits to using
LFTB in ground beef. Consumers demand a lean beef product, and LFTB
allows processors to make lean ground
beef blends that are affordable. Using
ammonium hydroxide or citric acid to
destroy bacteria provides added safety.
USDA data show that the incidence of
E. coli in fresh ground beef has been declining significantly over the past decade.
The number of USDA ground beef samples testing positive for E. coli O157:H7
dropped 55 percent between 2000 and
2010. LFTB products have been a part of
that success story.
Finally, all types of LFTB are sustainable products because processors recover
lean meat that would otherwise be wast-