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Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska

Looking for Good Answers to Hard Questions… “Pink Slime”

March 16, 2012Beef

Today I am going to present you with a Q and A interview with Dr. Russell Cross.  I feel that the complexity of the Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) discussion necessitates bringing in a specialist.  While I have read about the process of LFTB, Dr. Cross has lived the process and brings great experience to this discussion.

Many thanks to Dr. Cross for sharing his knowledge with us!
Currently, Dr. Cross is a professor at Texas A & M University but he served as the Administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service in the early 1990’s at the time that LFTB was approved.  As administrator, Dr. Cross was personally responsible for ensuring that this process was studied in depth to ensure that it made safe and healthy food.  Dr. Cross is not just a scientist; he is a father, a grandfather and a caring individual who has dedicated his life to researching meat and food safety.

Q and A:

Anne: The words “pink slime” have recently been in the news. Can you please offer your thoughts on the term?

Dr. Cross: Well it’s ridiculous really. But what’s being inaccurately referred to as “pink slime” is actually “lean finely textured beef.” It’s a category of beef products that uses special equipment to separate the lean meat from the fat in the trimmings created when steaks and roasts are cut. This process yields another 10-12 pounds of lean, nutritious beef from every beef animal and it can be added to other ground beef products.

Anne: Why are we suddenly hearing about this now?

Dr. Cross: Folks today are rightfully interested in where their food comes from and what’s in it, but unfortunately, a few people in the public eye have grossly dramatized the process and tried to make it into something it’s not.

For almost two decades, lean finely textured beef has been an acceptable ingredient in ground beef and the ground beef purchased by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) for distribution through federal food and nutrition assistance programs, which includes the national school lunch program. In my opinion, this is a great way to make sure as many people as possible have access to high-quality lean protein.

Anne: Can you explain the ammonia process that is used to make lean finely textured beef and why it is important?

Dr. Cross: Though the use of ammonia to make beef safer may sound strange, this process has been sensationalized and falsely communicated by the media—household cleaner is not used to make this product. The process is completely safe. The lean finely textured beef that has been separated from the fat receives a small puff of ammonium hydroxide gas (essentially ammonia and water), which slightly raises the pH level of the product, thereby destroying any bad bacteria. Ammonium hydroxide is a naturally occurring compound found in many foods, our own bodies and the environment. It is used to kill bacteria on many fresh foods, including fruits and vegetables, baked goods and even beer. The ammonia dissipates quickly so that there is no trace of ammonia left in the final product. This process has been used since 1974, when the Food and Drug Administration declared it GRAS or Generally Recognized as Safe, the highest safety attribution the agency can assign.

Anne: The media have suggested the approval of lean beef trimmings was rushed due to a personal agenda; do you think that was the case?

Dr. Cross: As Administrator of USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) in the early 90s, I and my staff evaluated numerous research projects before approving lean finely textured beef as a safe source of high-quality protein. No single person or agenda influenced the process, which took years…it wasn’t a decision that was made overnight. In the end, I actually was the one who approved lean finely textured beef as safe. I wasn’t ordered to do it; I did it because it was the right thing to do and it was scientifically proven safe. I cannot recall any objections from my fellow FSIS staff. In fact, I don’t recall the decision being controversial internally at all.

Anne: Given your experience, do you think we can we trust the FSIS process?

Dr. Cross: The FSIS safety review process was and is an in-depth, science-based process that spans years, many research projects and involves many experts across all levels of the agency—and in this case, the process proved lean beef trimmings are safe. This product has been safely used for many years.

I’ve visited the companies that produce lean finely textured beef and I can tell you that this valuable ingredient comes from some of the most high-tech, efficient and cleanest processing plants in our industry.

Anne: Why is this product so important?

Dr. Cross: Lean finely textured beef helps us meet consumer demand for safe, affordable and nutritious food. All beef is a good or excellent source of 10 essential nutrients including protein, iron, zinc and B-vitamins. I believe we have a responsibility to raise as much safe and nutritious protein with as few natural resources as possible and to make it available to as many people as possible.
Anne: Should lean beef trimmings be allowed in school lunch programs? 

Dr. Cross: There is no reason NOT to have it in the school lunch program—it is a safe, quality and nutritious ingredient and meets government regulations for safety. Our kids deserve access to high-quality lean protein like this, and sometimes for the kids served by the school lunch program, that meal is the only chance they get to fill their stomachs with healthy food.

Anne: Would you feed this to your family? Why do you feel good about it as a consumer?

Dr. Cross:  Listen, I enjoy ground beef. Spaghetti, tacos…but I have to admit the best is a juicy burger. I was part of approving lean finely textured beef for the food supply, I have total confidence in its safety and I continue to enjoy the same great ground beef meals I always have knowing this ingredient is an important part of making those meals I love.

Click here to watch a brief video with Dr. Cross addressing these same issues.