by Lisa M. Keefe | December 21, 2018
The ultra-lean beef product made primarily by Beef Products Inc., which has been called out on labels on a voluntary basis since 2012 as “lean finely textured beef,” has been reclassified by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service as simply “ground beef.”
“We’re not producing LFTB anymore. We’re producing ground beef from this point on,” said Craig Letch, BPI’s vice president of sales and marketing, in an interview with Meatingplace about the agency’s move. “Even our traditional customer base, whom we’ve been supplying lean meat to, they now will be receiving ground beef from us rather than ‘LFTB’.”
The decision comes at the end of a six- to nine-month review by FSIS across multiple departments, said Letch and Nick Roth, BPI’s vice president of engineering. The process included a consumer panel comparing samples of BPI’s lean beef product alone to commercially available ground beef purchased at retail.
“[Our product] performed extremely well,” Letch noted.
As well, the company submitted information demonstrating that its beef product meets the nutritional standards and requirements for ground beef. And BPI hosted a team of FSIS researchers at its production plant, to demonstrate its technology and its processes.
“All those elements, and time they spent at a multitude of levels, was what was able to bring them to their decision,” Letch said.
‘Beef is beef’
FSIS’s decision to reclassify the product brings the labeling issue full circle, to the “Beef is beef” slogan that BPI and its supporters launched in 2012 in response to a series of scathing reports that ran on ABC World News in March of that year. Those reports dubbed BPI’s product “pink slime” and repeatedly decried the fact that it was not separately identified on labels.
The toxic publicity that stemmed from the network reports gutted BPI’s business, leading to the closing of three out of four production facilities and the loss of about 750 jobs. It also led to a landmark defamation lawsuit filed by BPI in September 2012, in South Dakota against ABC News, reporter Jim Avila and others, asking for $1.9 billion — an amount that could have been tripled under the state’s laws pertaining to “product disparagement.”
In late June 2017, BPI and ABC News settled the case, not quite a month after the trial had begun. The terms were not disclosed. ABC News’ parent company, Walt Disney Co., said in a public report that it had paid $177 million out of pocket toward the settlement, but a much larger amount is believed to have been shouldered by Disney’s insurers.
‘Evolution’ in process
BPI’s signature process has been to separate fat from lean in beef trimmings using a type of centrifuge, a technology that captures edible meat from trimmings that otherwise would be discarded from the human food supply chain. The meat then was frozen into chips that could be easily mixed in with fattier conventional ground beef to reach a desired level of leanness, and treated with a pH-raising application of ammonium hydroxide as a food safety intervention. As consumers sought leaner ground beef products, perceiving them as healthier, BPI’s ultra-lean product was in high demand by other grinders.
The same basic processing elements remain, Letch and Roth said, although each has “evolved” with updated technologies and techniques.
“We’ve revamped the whole process again, and it’s always easier for us to talk about what hasn’t changed than what has,” Letch said.
The trimmings the company uses, for example, are now boneless. Changes to the packaging line mean BPI can more easily produce non-frozen product.
Essentially, Roth said, the changes at BPI and the reclassification of its leanest products enable the company to broaden its offerings.
“We can produce the leanest-meat ground beef that there is … on a large-scale basis, but we also have a very precise way to make almost any ground beef blend” at any leanness point, he said.
“Our goal is to still make lean meat, but also to really create new and innovative products that wouldn’t compete with the broader ground beef industry,” which is BPI’s main customer base, he added. “Our technology lends itself well to be able to innovate new product, but it kind of starts with the ground beef, and that’s why this is important for us.”