“Beef Is Beef?” Why Experts Disagree With That Claim for LFTB

Readers who’ve long been following the beef industry’s response to the controversy surrounding lean finely textured beef (LFTB, commonly known as “pink slime”) will remember the first website and Twitter hash tag marshaled in defense of the product: “pinkslimeisamyth.”

But within a few days someone on the BPI crisis response team apparently decided to ditch that rather clumsy name in favor of “beefisbeef” — a catchphrase now repeated over and over (and over) again by LFTB supporters on this blog and elsewhere.

The gist of the slogan is that LFTB is 100% identical to what most consumers think of when they hear “ground beef,” i.e., a piece of whole muscle meat ground up.  “Beef is beef,” say LFTB supporters, so stop demanding labeling for LFTB.  Comments worded almost exactly like this one appear frequently on my blog:

Here is the LABEL

Ingredients: BEEF, plus more LEAN BEEF.

That was easy.

But as Helena Bottemiller writes today in a Food Safety News report, apparently there are qualitative, material differences between LFTB and ground beef.  Specifically, according to the scientists quoted in Bottemiller’s report — including the only scientist invited to BPI’s governor-heavy press conference last week — LFTB differs from ground beef in several important respects, including the presence of ammonia in the finished product and differences in texture and protein composition.  After a summary of the evidence, Bottemiller asks:

So if LFTB contains added ammonia, is 100 times more alkaline, and has both a different texture and sometimes smell, why isn’t it labeled as a component when it’s thawed and mixed in ground beef?

A very good question.

And here’s a question of my own.  Even if we buy into the “beef is beef” claim, no one can deny that the presence of LFTB in a burger affects the final taste and texture, one way or the other.

BPI claims on its website that the effect is positive:

In study after study, taste panel after taste panel, consumers have consistently shown a preference for ground meat and other products made from BPI ingredients.  A taste panel conducted on our behalf by South Dakota State University confirms why our lean beef is a preferred ground beef ingredient.

Interestingly enough, if you dig into the actual study commissioned by BPI to support its “LFTB burgers are preferred” claim, you’ll see that the higher the LFTB ratio in the burger, the higher it was rated by taste test panelists on the “tenderness” variable, a finding which fully comports with Helena Bottelmiller’s reporting today that:

. . . according to a 1995 study on LFTB by Ying He and Joseph Sebranek of Iowa State University, LFTB contains more serum and connective tissue proteins and less myofibrillar proteins than muscle meat, giving it a softer texture.

Meanwhile, in his own admittedly informal taste test, Associated Press food editor JM Hirsch gave his LFTB-containing burger at thumbs down:

And then there was the texture. Unpleasantly chewy bits of what I can only describe as gristle, though they were not visible, seemed to stud the meat of the pink slime burger. The result was a mealy chew that, while not overtly unpleasant, didn’t leave me wanting another bite.

But the point is this:  LFTB might well be valued by some consumers precisely because it results in a softer burger, and other consumers may want to avoid LFTB for that same reason (or for a whole host of other reasons — lingering ammonia being just one of them).  So how do we accommodate both sets of consumers?

Dude, just label it.

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  1. Kelli says

    In your title you trumpet “…Experts Disagree…” and then you give us “Associated Press food editor JM Hirsch”? That’s it? Seriously? Ha, “experts”, that’s a good one Bettina!

    • Matt says

      I still don’t see the point in labeling beef anything other than beef. It’s the same beef that’s in ground beef no matter if you grind your own or not.

      • says

        The next time I grind my own, heat it, centrifuge it, and treat with a gentle “puff” of ammonia that will remain in the beef at up to four times the concentration that was there prior to my preparation, I will be certain to write a blog post recounting how beef is just beef.

      • Tracy says

        No, Matt, it is not exactly “the same beef that’s in ground beef no matter if you grind your own or not”. I would agree that it’s perfectly edible, but then so are most insects, worms, slugs, etc. it they are processed properly.
        The LFTB arrives at the plant as chunks of fat and trimmings that have been removed from the choicest cuts of meat. These chunks are then ground into mush and heated to melt the fat into a liquid. So now you have melted fat (lard) with little pieces of meat, sinew, bone bits, etc. floating around in it. A mechanical process attempts to remove the bone, sinew, gristle, etc. Then a second mechanical process attempts to separate the remaining solids (mostly bits of meat) from the melted fat. However, no system is perfect so you get what you get. Thus the “unpleasantly chewy bits” in the JM Hirsch taste test.

        • Matt says

          Tracy, sorry to inform you that your “version” of the process is not accurate. Curious…who is your source on how BPI makes LFTB? You might consider finding another.

          • Erin says


            Your statement about bones being in the product is not true. The USDA does not allow beef to be mechanically separated from the bone due to risks of disease. So there are no bone pieces used in this process, it is simply not allowed.

        • Erin says

          Tracy – I just wanted to clarify with you that there are no bone pieces used in this process, only pieces of meat and fat that have been trimmed when steaks and roasts are made. Also this product is around 95%lean, so it has a lot less fat than other ground beef you would purchase in the store. And if you read the whole article about the taste test you will see that when he went to the store to purchase the gound beef, the stores were not sure if the product he was buying actually had LFTB in it, and the fact that prepared the hamburger and he knew which hamburger came from “natural” beef and which had LFTB before he took a bite, the results of this “taste test” really means nothing. BPI LFTB has won numorous blind taste test over the years!

          • Tracy says

            Matt and Erin,
            Yes I’m sure my “version” is quite accurate as I have witnessed the product flow from one end of the plant to the other. I worked there for years so I’m not relying on a second-hand “source” of information. And when I say “bones” I’m not talking about whole bones. I refer to the tiny chips and particles that make their way into the trim that is the raw product from which LFTB is processed. Here again I’ve seen this with my own eyes and worked on the equipment with my own hands. And yes I’ve tasted the product, so I can honestly say that I prefer a nice greasy burger without LFTB.
            Is there anything else that you’d like to correct me on?

    • says

      You may want to read the Helena Bottemiller piece to which she refers throughout the majority of the post, and which is handily linked for easy reference.

      • Matt says

        I don’t know what you did at BPI but can obviously tell you don’t actually have an understanding of the process. Sounds like you made observations and are reporting assumptions. You say “worked on” the equipment…just because you wash your car doesn’t mean you understand the mechanics behind every component.

    • Janet says

      Or how about labeling it: FCTB with LFTB (Fatty Coursely Textured Beef and Lean Finely Textured Beef)? Or FCTB alone?

  2. says

    One time that labeling might have prevented an issue was when the prison in Georgia returned a batch of ground beef with LFTB, due to the strong odor of ammonia (which they took to indicate some form of contamination, since there was nothing on the label to indicate the presence of a detectable level of ammonia in the product.)

    I will also contend that labeling ground beef that contains LFTB is actually beneficial for BPI and other producers of the product, and the fact that it was not labeled is a root cause that folks erupted in anger when they found out it was present. Labeling it would help to establish awareness. And no, not the “Beef AND MORE BEEF” nonsense: people will just find that insulting (as well they should.)


  3. Chris says

    As for the taste test that claimed “And then there was the texture. Unpleasantly chewy bits of what I can only describe as gristle, though they were not visible, seemed to stud the meat of the pink slime burger. The result was a mealy chew that, while not overtly unpleasant, didn’t leave me wanting another bite.” Bpi isn’t the only supplier in the game but it’s the only one mentioned he has no clue whose product he was eating. It’s mentioned that the most common picture is of mechanically separated chicken and lftb supporters are told to leave chicken out of this. People claiming the press conference was governor heavy. They showed up to support the businesses of their states like they should. The problem is too many facts are being discarded and replaced with what ABC claims to be true. Many local news medias in ALL STATES are checking the facts and changing their tune and even apologizing for following the hype.

    • says

      Chris – my understanding is that BPI hold a patent on the process for producing LFTB that utilizes the ammonia treatment. So, if it didn’t come from them, either (a) it didn’t contain ammonia, or (b) BPI is licensing its patent to other companies (which could easily be the case.)

      I don’t know about the press conference being “Governor-heavy”; my observation was that the government types and food-safety advocates seemed like puppets on a string, doing a dance at their master’s (financial benefactor’s) behest. I made a similar observation about Gov. Perry some years ago during the Gardasil situation, as it seemed then that he was taking action based on who paid him off (contributed to his campaign), and it seemed a little too blatant, and smacked a little too much of a conflict of interest, for my liking.

      As far as news media anywhere apologizing for their coverage of this – could you please cite some sources? I for one haven’t heard of anyone backtracking/retracting (though I don’t see ALL the media reports, nor would I have time to read them all.)


      • Chris says

        The point is Cargill has similar process and I’m sure others do to, all this ps stuff is being blamed on Bpi. Without labels how was he sure it was from Bpi. I have friends that have gone to meat counters and asked for beef without ps and they say theirs has Cargill’s product. The only thing different (that I know of) in their process is the use of citric acid (which is synthetic and I believe has to be neutralized) but it’s still trimmings. I guess that’s my point only Bpi is in the news not the others, it’s not about the trimmings not the ammonia it’s about Bpi. I’m not against the labels the public should get to choose offer both.

      • Chris says

        Nothing I can say about the press conference that you wont tear down so I won’t.
        As far as the news check the Sioux City Journal, Des Moines, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, and Fox did big one on Abc attacking Bpi.
        And yes I have kids and they eat school lunches and I worry about their safety. But there are many things larger than ground beef that I worry about.

  4. Bob says

    Here’s what I’m genuinely curious about: Stores can’t take a chuck roast and call it a tenderloin. It’s a different cut of meat, with different flavor, texture, and consistency. Consumers are willing to pay more for different cuts of beef. So while beef is beef, some beef has always been more equal than others in the eyes of shoppers.

    That brings us to LFTB — a product which BPI is proud to proclaim has different textural and nutritional properties than ground beef. Additionally, LFTB is never sent through a grinder. It is absolutely beef, but it’s not ground… it’s centrifuged. So why insist on calling it ground beef in stores? BPI’s process creates a product that is, by BPI’s own research, quantitatively and qualitatively different from ground beef.

    So what’s wrong with labeling it as LFTB, so consumers can make an educated decision, and the free market can price it accordingly?

    • Tracy says

      Yes, Bob, it most certainly is sent through a grinder. As a matter of fact that’s the first step in their process. They grind everything into mush. That’s how it becomes “finely textured”.

  5. Janet says

    There probably wouldn’t really be a problem if the media (ABC News) hadn’t made it seem as if it were inedible products used.

  6. Kevin says

    [ “That is because the trimmings of the different cuts are ground to make hamburger meat. That’s the same place LFTB comes from.” — Janet ]

    … “trimmings” from what parts of the cow ??

    What cow-parts (from nose-to-tail) are absolutely excluded from LFTB ?

    How do YOU know ?


  7. Janet says

    The trimmings from the roast, steaks, etc., that are cut from the different areas. There are government (USDA) standards for what can be used to make cuts of meats and ground meat. I can’t tell you exactly where but I know it is not nose, ears, stomach, hooves, genitals, tails, etc.

    I know because I was around when BPI first started and when the discovery of ammonium hydroxide used to kill the harmful bacteria was first announced.

    I live in the area and the local paper prints news about this company and those that contribute trimmings from the carcasses. I have regular information not just something that some media and other people decide to put out there. If they actually knew what was going on, they would not report this as “pink slime” but as LFTB.

  8. Paul says

    I agree with some comments that the term “expert” may be overstated, but if that is all some of the pro-slime folks can jump on then you all are going to have to better than that. I saw something in a blog post for Scientific American last week by Chemist See Arr Oh. He shared thoughts on the nutritional value of Lean Finely Textured Beef, he writes,
    “Consumers can certainly make valid arguments regarding [lean finely textured beef’s] content: There’s less overall ‘functional’ protein than that found in other meat products. An analysis conducted at Iowa State University (A.S. Leaflet R1361) found two-and-a-half times more insoluble protein (77 percent vs. 30 percent) relative to soluble proteins in ordinary ground chuck. Nutritionally, our gut bacteria digest much of what we cannot, but there’s a good bet that we can’t get as much value from insoluble proteins (collagen and elastin, found largely in tendons, ligaments, and cartilage) as from their soluble siblings (myosin and actin, usually associated with muscle tissues). While these proteins may be hard to digest, on the plus side, there’s less fat in LFTB (~5 percent) than standard ground chuck (15-20 percent).”

    So yes, lets call Lean Finely Textured Beef what it is: Cheap Filler

  9. Trixe says


  10. Trixe says


    Just watched a video with Bettina and Jim Avila
    Very interesting to see that they asked you if you were happy with what you STARTED.

    I have posted the correct Video on this page
    Food, Inc. Video commentary was incorrect about
    many things.

  11. Nathan says

    You mention the study conducted by Iowa State University where they found that the LFTB “contains more serum and connective tissue proteins and less myofibrillar proteins than muscle meat.” But, did you read that in the study they substituted LFTB in at 50% or 100% in place of other lean beef? In hamburger, LFTB can only be substituted at 20% or less. Obviously at 50% or 100% there will be more of these tissues, but it’s not included in normal burger at these rates. Just keep that in mind.

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