Cargill recently announced that they will begin labeling its finely textured beef when used in making U.S. ground beef products. The move is made as consumers increasingly demand more transparency in how food is made.
If you recall from last year, the media dubbed finely textured beef as 'pink slime'. Another company, Beef Products Inc., made a similar product but used different technology than Cargill. Cargill's process uses citric acid rather than BPI's process which used ammonium hydroxide. BPI ultimately closed three of their processing plants after the backlash towards lean finely textured beef.
There seems to be two primary concerns that the general population have regarding finely textured beef. First, that the trimmings were centrifugally separated. Second, that ammonia hydroxide was used to kill potential pathogens, such as E coli and Salmonella. You can read more about the questions around finely textured beef here.
Sensationalized images of finely textured beef is how many came to understand how it was produced. Jamie Oliver, the British chef who had the TV show Food Revolution, shared how he envisioned the process to be. You can watch it on YouTube. His visual is preceded with the words, "this is how I imagine the process to be."
Oliver states that in the past, the meat trimmings which are mechanically separated from the fat were used in dog food, and now they are used in finely textured beef as a filler for ground beef. Obviously, without the mechanical process, it is not practical for someone in a meat plant to hand separate meat from fat.
Then he proceeds to show ammonia being used to treat the meat. He takes cleaning ammonia from a locked cupboard, states that he doesn't know how much is used, and proceeds to pour a few cups of ammonia over the meat. The difference is that BPI uses ammonia hydroxide which is in gas form. It's a puff of gas, and a similar process is used in other foods to kill potential pathogens.
Efficiency has been celebrated since the beginning of time, yet technology surrounding food seems to be different. It is important for those of us in agriculture to not only understand what happens in food production, but also to speak up when others are just following the sensationalized images, and share the missing pieces of the story.