Standing Up for Citizen Journalism

Back in July, many of you saw an Associated Press story which reported that “[s]everal food writers, including a New York Times reporter, have been subpoenaed by a meat producer as part of its $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit against ABC in regards to the network’s coverage of a beef product dubbed ‘pink slime’ by critics.”

Because of my successful Change.org petition in 2012, some of you asked whether I, too, had received a subpoena from Beef Products Inc. (BPI), the plaintiff in this lawsuit and the maker of lean, finely textured beef (“LFTB,” aka “pink slime.”)  I didn’t speak about it publicly at the time but, based on a motion filed by BPI in South Dakota state court, I knew a subpoena was likely on its way.  In mid-August, BPI’s process server showed up at my door.

Although I’m not a party to or otherwise involved in BPI’s lawsuit, BPI wants all of my private communications in 2012 with the parties they’ve sued, including employees of ABC News and the two former USDA microbiologists who first expressed concern about the meat filler in private emails, some of which were later made public by the New York Times.

I do have information responsive to this request, but I’m asserting the protection of the First Amendment and Texas’s “shield law” (a statute giving journalists a qualified privilege against disclosure of their material in cases like this) so that my confidential communications, source material and work product remain private

Here’s why I felt it was important to take this stand.

Whether the issue is GMO labelinganimal welfare practices, or the disclosure of questionable ingredients — from the yellow dye in mac-in-cheese to the LFTB hidden in ground beef — consumers clearly care about food transparency.  And precisely because we’re not affiliated with traditional media outlets, food policy bloggers like me have the freedom to focus exclusively on such issues, often devoting considerable time and effort to inform readers about, and advocate for, these causes.  But if bloggers and other “citizen journalists” are going to face lawyers and subpoenas whenever they gather information on potentially controversial topics, they may well think twice before they post.  And that sort of chilling effect ultimately harms us all.

I’ll keep you informed of any developments with respect to the subpoena.  And thanks to my attorney – better known around here as “Mr. TLT” – for taking time out of his own busy work schedule to represent me in this matter.

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Ex-BPI Employee Dismisses “Pink Slime” Lawsuit Against Me, ABC and Jamie Oliver

Back in December I told you that Bruce Smith, a former environmental health and safety officer at Beef Products Inc., filed a pro se lawsuit in Nebraska state court against me, ABC News, Jim Avila, Diane Sawyer and Jamie Oliver.   In his complaint, Mr. Smith claimed to have suffered the negligent infliction of emotional distress due to the loss of his job at BPI last May, a job loss which he alleged arose out the controversy over lean, finely textured beef (more popularly known as “pink slime”).

The case was subsequently removed by the defendants to federal court and about three weeks ago it was voluntarily dismissed by Mr. Smith.  To my knowledge, Mr. Smith has made no public comment regarding his dismissal of the case.

A second lawsuit arising out of the “pink slime” controversy continues, however.  That case, filed by BPI against ABC News, Jim Avila, Diane Sawyer, a former BPI employee and two former USDA microbiologists, seeks $1.2 billion in damages.  I’ll continue to provide updates on the BPI litigation as warranted.

I’d like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the many people who offered assistance and support while the Smith litigation was pending against me, with special thanks to attorney Kenneth White of the Popehat blog and to the Online Media Legal Network at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

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Breaking: BPI Sues ABC News For $1.2 Billion Over “Pink Slime” Coverage

Beef Products Inc., maker of lean, finely textured beef (aka LFTB and commonly referred to as “pink slime”) has announced this morning that it is filing a state court defamation lawsuit against ABC News arising out of the network’s coverage of the product this past spring.   The suit seeks $1.2 billion dollars in actual and punitive damages.

At a press conference which is still underway as of this writing, BPI’s lead attorney alleges that ABC News made roughly two hundred false and misleading statements about the product and that the network “improperly interfered” with the relationships between BPI and its customers.

ABC’s response was short and to the point:

Statement from Jeffrey W. Schneider, Senior Vice President, ABC News:

“The lawsuit is without merit. We will contest it vigorously.”

Here’s the take of leading food safety lawyer Bill Marler:

I just do not get the liability. I just do not see it.

On damages – IMHO, most have been self-inflicted by BPI. I was in the BPI plant in 2009 and talked to them about the coming NYT story and they should be transparent.

Legal commentator Popehat looks forward to the lawsuit and its First Amendment implications.

I’ll share updates regarding the litigation as warranted.

Because news of this lawsuit is likely to stir the passions of LFTB supporters, before I sign off I’d like to remind everyone of my stringent comments policy.  Sadly, this reminder is necessary in light of the profane and sometimes overtly antisemitic comments which LFTB supporters have regularly attempted to post on this blog over the last several months.  Please be aware that all such comments will be automatically deleted at my discretion and the commenter’s IP address will be placed permanently in my spam folder.  Thank you.

[Ed. Update 9/13/12 11:15 CST:  Here is the actual complaint.  In addition to ABC News, other named defendants include the two USDA microbiologists and the former BPI employee who appeared on ABC’s reports regarding LFTB.]

 

 

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My Response to a Facebook Commenter re: LFTB, Job Losses, “Pink Goo” and More

Over the last few weeks, a pro-LFTB commenter named Tiffany has left numerous wall posts on TLT’s Facebook page and when I finally wrote my belated response to her this morning, it seemed worth posting here since many pro-LFTB commenters on this blog have raised similar concerns.  For those who wish to see the exchange referenced below between Tiffany and the other commenter, Tina, you can visit the page and look for Tiffany’s wall post which read:

‎? This started as a way to get LFTB out of school lunches. Then it turned into a full on media smear. Then after you denounced a company and it’s product, after you signed petitions to ban it, your asking for a label. Why is it you felt your opinions where the only ones that mattered?

Here is my response:

Hey Tina and Tiffany:

First of all, it’s been nice to read this exchange and see two people who disagree still manage to keep it together and recognize their common ground — and even be able to joke with each other.  After all the ugliness over on my blog, I find your dialogue hopeful and inspiring.

Tiffany, I don’t know if you ever actually read my blog — sometimes you say things here about me or my views that make me think you don’t bother going to TLT?  (Just FYI, this Facebook page is an informal place for my readers to hang out and where I share little asides, but it’s not the place where I present my views on important issues.)  So it’s hard — and even a bit unfair to ask me — to recap in these little blue boxes full responses to your concerns given that I’ve already written about them at length on TLT.  But let me just say a few things here.

I am deeply troubled by job losses and plant closings.  I think it’s safe to say that almost everyone who reads TLT is a parent, and we all know the pressure and anxiety of having young children dependent on us for all their needs.  To put any parent through the stress of job loss, especially in this economy, is a terrible thing.

What I find even more troubling is that the people who might lose their jobs over this controversy are likely very far removed from the decision makers who helped influence USDA’s determination that this product not be labeled on ground beef.  Had consumers known about this filler from day one, and had BPI been making all the positive claims about it that we’re now hearing from the company, I suspect we would never have seen anything like the consumer outcry of the last few weeks, the same outcry that led stores to cancel orders, etc.  People felt — rightly, to my mind — deceived about what they were buying when they picked up a package of ground beef in the supermarket and the backlash has been intense.

It is true that my petition focused only on school food.  You’re new here and, as Tina said, I write only about kids and food on TLT, five days a week.  I’m also actively involved in school food in Houston ISD.  So I care very much about what we feed school kids and yes — while I know you and I will never, ever agree on this subject — I was quite displeased to learn on March 5th that LFTB is still in the meat procured by USDA for the National School Lunch Program.  (I had thought Agriculture Secretary Vilsack had made a decision in 2010 to no longer use beef with LFTB in school food; I was obviously mistaken.)

I started a petition on March 6th which contained only factual, sourced information.  I did not make any big deal about “ammonia” – I mentioned the use of ammonium hydroxide exactly once in the petition and that’s it – no scary references to Windex, etc.  And yes, while on the first day I accidentally included that incorrect photo of “pink goo,” I corrected my error on the petition and on TLT the very next day.  (My best guess is that perhaps 2,000 people of the quarter of a million who ultimately signed the petition saw the original version with the goo photo.)

As media coverage of the issue spread and consumers expressed their dismay over learning that LFTB was in their reportedly 70% of ground beef sold in the U.S., up to 15% and without disclosure, a call for labeling began.  While that was not the goal of my petition, I wholeheartedly support labeling and lent my voice to that effort.  (And those two goals are not unrelated.  Schoolchildren who participate in the NSLP are by and large economically dependent on the school meal, yet they and their parents had no voice over — or knowledge of — what was in the ground beef being served.)  I am proud of the fact that I worked with Congresswoman Pingree’s office to help introduce the REAL Beef Act in Congress and I hope that it succeeds in getting passed.  Even if it does not, however, we saw yesterday that USDA will allow processors to voluntarily label LFTB and many are taking advantage of this choice.

I have never once asked for this product to be banned from the marketplace.  However, our free market economy cannot function without informed consumer choice.  BPI clearly has a big megaphone — no less than five states sent governors or lieutenant governors to participate in its widely covered press conference last week — and it is well equipped to make its case that LFTB is a safe and wholesome product.  Some consumers will agree and buy beef with LFTB, and others will not.  That seems to me to be the right of every American consumer and, frankly, I wonder why many who believe LFTB is such a great product seem afraid to let consumers know it’s in their ground beef.  (And before you tell me “beef is beef,” such that LFTB needs no label, I promise you that I am very well acquainted with that view point, and I just don’t agree.  You can read why here, among other places.)

Finally, thank you for the many comments you’ve left on this page expressing your views.  You recently used some harsh expletives to address a commenter on this page and while I don’t condone that,  I also saw that you were provoked by her.  I trust you won’t do that again, and you should know I’ve spoken to the person on the other side as well.  And I’m sorry it’s taken me days to address you directly here – it has been challenging to keep up with the hundreds of comments coming in on this page and on the blog itself, as well as all the emails I receive.

As I said above, I know you and I will never see eye-to-eye on this issue, but I hope this clears up at least a few of the misconceptions you seem to have had about me and my petition.  And, again, I do hope you will visit The Lunch Tray, if you haven’t already done so, to actually read my views presented in a fuller and more nuanced way.

“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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BREAKING: USDA To Allow Voluntary Labeling of LFTB; Branstad Requests Congressional Hearing

Meatingplace.com, a meat industry online publication, reports today that USDA has received and approved voluntary requests from meat purveyors to disclose on product packaging the inclusion of lean, finely textured beef.  Meatingplace.com is a members-only site but the relevant excerpt of the post reads as follows:

USDA has agreed to approve requests by ground beef product makers to voluntarily label their products that contain lean finely textured beef (LFTB) or similar products that have been the focus of media and social media reporting that has frightened consumers.

“Several companies have chosen to voluntarily pursue a new claim on their product labels that will allow them to clarify the use of Lean Finely Textured Beef.  USDA has received this type of application for the first time through the normal label approval process and the department has determined that such requests will be approved,” USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee told Meatingplace. “By exercising this existing option, these companies can continue to provide a lean, safe and nutritious product to an informed customer base.”

This is a clear victory for consumers who have expressed their concern in recent days that LFTB has been included in reportedly 70% of the nation’s ground beef, up to 15%, without their knowledge.  It follows on the heels of introduction of the REAL Beef Act by Representative Chellie Pingree, as well as letters in support of labeling submitted to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack by Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Sam Farr.

In other news, Iowa governor Terry Branstad has called for a Congressional inquiry into what he refers to as the “smear campaign” against LFTB:

The governor said he suggested an inquiry to U.S. Reps. Steve King and Leonard Boswell and raised the issue with Vilsack, a former Iowa governor. King and Boswell did not immediately return messages left Monday requesting comment.

You’ll recall that Branstad was one of the five governors and lieutenant governors who came to the aid of Beef Products Inc. at a recent press conference, which Marion Nestle described as “breathtakingly high-level—and perhaps unprecedented—support for the public relations troubles of a private food company.”

Stay tuned.

 

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“‘Blue Barf,’ ‘Green Goop:'” Why Only The Truth Will Set BPI Free

Bill Marler, one of the nation’s leading food safety lawyers, has publicly praised Beef Products Inc. (manufacturer of lean, finely textured beef, commonly known as “pink slime”) for leading the industry with its advanced E. coli testing.  (As have I, by the way.)

But even without taking issue with the product per se, Marler rightly criticizes BPI for keeping consumers in the dark about the nature of LFTB and the ingredients used to make it.  In a post today on his Marler Blog, he writes:

Not openly explaining how the food product was made and what all the additives and ingredients are was a foundational mistake for this CEO. Of course, even 10 years ago it was possible to have an idea for a food additive (err, processing aide), to get a college professor hungry for research dollars to give it high marks, and to get a government bureaucrat yearning for a post-public sector job, to approve its quiet introduction into commerce. Those days are done.

It was also a bad idea to ignore dissenting expert opinions that made it into memos and emails. Documents, especially electronic ones, now exist forever, and, if there exists something negative about your product it cannot and should not be ignored.

He then gives BPI some sound advice on how to end its current public relations nightmare, including (1) not shooting (or suing) the messenger — and as one of many “messengers”about LFTB, amen to that — and (2) not playing “the political card.”  That latter advice comes too late, of course, after last week’s governor-heavy BPI press conference, which Marler skewers:

Sure, you have given hundreds of thousands of dollars (perhaps millions) to politicians (hopefully from both parties – Republicans and Democrats will equally prostitute themselves), but do not make them dance in support of your product as they try to explain that the money you threw at them has no bearing on their willingness to dance.

In the end, advises Marler:

Why not say it was a mistake to hide from the public all ingredients and additives that are in the product? Tell the consumer what they already know – they have a right to know.

The post is a must-read whether you loathe “pink slime” or are a staunch supporter of Beef Products Inc. and feel the company has been unfairly maligned.

 

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Today’s LFTB Link Round-Up

Before signing off, I wanted to share a few links related to yesterday’s remarkably high-wattage press conference, arranged by BPI yesterday to defend its lean, finely textured beef, also known as “pink slime:”

Helena Bottemiller of Food Safety News has a good recap and analysis, including a description of some heated exchanges between BPI’s panelists and Jim Avila of ABC News, who has reported extensively on this issue.

Michele Simon, long an observer of the food industry and its response to public scrutiny, has incisive commentary about the event.

Here’s a photo spread of what this media outlet called  the “pink slime plant tour.”

Marion Nestle describes what it’s been like to be on the receiving end of BPI’s intense lobbying, and also questions financial ties between some of the entities involved.  As Nestle notes, “This is breathtakingly high-level—and perhaps unprecedented—support for the public relations troubles of a private food company.”

There were even t-shirts handed out at the event, bearing what I’m sure the beef industry hopes will be a catchy slogan:

photo source: Food Safety News

Maybe they should have just gone with Jon Stewart’s proposed name for the substance?”

 

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Has LFTB Really Been In Our Beef for “Twenty Years” And Without Incident?

Yesterday’s press conference held by Beef Products, Inc., attended by no less than three governors, two lieutenant governors, and the Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was a masterpiece of crisis management.   I’m still working my way through the raw footage – you can view it yourself in real time here.

But even without having seen the entire event, one factoid from the press conference (and disseminated in earlier beef industry communications) is now getting a lot of play in the media:  that lean, finely textured beef, or so-called “pink slime,” has been in our food supply “for twenty years,” with no apparent harm to the consumer.  Here’s just one such use of this fact, in a statement released by South Dakota Governor Dennis Dougard:

Lean finely-textured beef is a 100 percent beef, 95 percent lean, nutritious, safe, quality and affordable beef product eaten by Americans for 20 years.

As I’ve articulated in many posts, but perhaps most succinctly in this one (“My Response to Beef Industry Defenses of ‘Pink Slime'”) there are many reasons to oppose the undisclosed use of this cheap filler in our school food and our food supply without even discussing food safety.  But if food safety is of concern, that fact — twenty years in our beef with no harm done — is pretty compelling.

The only problem is, it’s not true.

Michael Moss, the New York Times reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting about the beef industry and food safety, wrote an extensive article about Beef Products Inc. and LFTB in 2009.   The very first sentence of his article makes clear that the controversial ammonium-hydroxide-based process which creates LFTB been only been in use since 2001:

Eight years ago, federal officials were struggling to remove potentially deadly E. coli from hamburgers when an entrepreneurial company from South Dakota came up with a novel idea: injecting beef with ammonia.

Moss goes on to describe how Eldon Roth, founder of BPI, experimented throughout the 1990s with various methods for treating slaughterhouse scraps before hitting on the combination of heating, centrifuging and treating with ammonium-hydroxide, a process USDA and FDA only approved around 2001:

One of Mr. Roth’s early trials involved running electricity through the trimmings to kill bacteria. . . . Mr. Roth eventually settled on ammonia, which had been shown to suppress spoilage. Meat is sent through pipes where it is exposed to ammonia gas, and then flash frozen and compressed — all steps that help kill pathogens, company research found.

The treated beef landed in Washington in 2001, when federal officials were searching for ways to eliminate E. coli. . . .

Mr. Roth asserted that his product would kill pathogens in untreated meat when it was used as an ingredient in ground beef — raising the prospect of a risk-free burger. “Given the technology, we firmly believe that the two pathogens of major concern in raw ground beef — E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella — are on the verge of elimination,” Mr. Roth wrote to the department.

The Food and Drug Administration signed off on the use of ammonia, concluding it was safe when used as a processing agent in foods.

So, assuming Moss’s article is factually correct (and assuming BPI was not selling this substance without governmental approval), the filler which is the subject of so much controversy has not been in our food supply for “twenty years.”

But what about that claim by BPI and its supporters that the use of this filler has been without incident?

Again, Moss’s article indicates otherwise. In the early years of selling LFTB, BPI encountered complaints from schools and prisons about ammonia in the product:

As suppliers of national restaurant chains and government-financed programs were buying Beef Product meat to use in ground beef, complaints about its pungent odor began to emerge.

In early 2003, officials in Georgia returned nearly 7,000 pounds to Beef Products after cooks who were making meatloaf for state prisoners detected a “very strong odor of ammonia” in 60-pound blocks of the trimmings, state records show.

“It was frozen, but you could still smell ammonia,” said Dr. Charles Tant, a Georgia agriculture department official. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Unaware that the meat was treated with ammonia — since it was not on the label — Georgia officials assumed it was accidentally contaminated and alerted the agriculture department. In their complaint, the officials noted that the level of ammonia in the beef was similar to levels found in contamination incidents involving chicken and milk that had sickened schoolchildren.

As a result, according to Moss, BPI made a decision internally to lower the amount of ammonium hydroxide used in LFTB, despite the fact that USDA had approved its process only when higher levels of the chemical were used:

The Beef Products’ study that won U.S.D.A. approval used an ammonia treatment that raised the pH of the meat to as high as 10, an alkalinity well beyond the range of most foods. The company’s 2003 study cited the “potential issues surrounding the palatability of a pH-9.5 product.”

Soon after getting initial approval from the agriculture department, the company devised a plan to make a less alkaline version of the beef, internal company documents show. Beef Products acknowledged in an e-mail exchange that it was making a lower pH version, but did not specify the level or when it began selling it.

Thereafter, according to Moss, the safety of LFTB was compromised:

. . . government and industry records obtained by The New York Times show that in testing for the school lunch program, E. coli and salmonella pathogens have been found dozens of times in Beef Products meat, challenging claims by the company and the U.S.D.A. about the effectiveness of the treatment. Since 2005, E. coli has been found 3 times and salmonella 48 times, including back-to-back incidents in August in which two 27,000-pound batches were found to be contaminated. The meat was caught before reaching lunch-rooms trays.

In July, school lunch officials temporarily banned their hamburger makers from using meat from a Beef Products facility in Kansas because of salmonella — the third suspension in three years, records show.

What might have happened had that contaminated meat had actually reached our children’s school lunch trays, given that children are far more vulnerable to harm from foodborne illnesses than adults?

The bottom line is that the raw material used to create LFTB is, by its very nature, inherently pathogenic due to its likely contact with cow excrement.  That is precisely why BPI’s innovative ammonium-hydroxide process revolutionized the market — and has reportedly earned the company “hundreds of millions” of dollars.

But that’s also the reason why, when we eat LFTB, we are putting tremendous faith in BPI’s process.   There can be no human or mechanical error, as demonstrated by the fact that in 2009, when two 26,880 pound lots of LFTB tested positive for E. coli and salmonella, respectively, BPI first blamed the incident on a broken nozzle that had failed to spray ammonium hydroxide for a mere sixty seconds:

In addressing the latest contamination cases in Nebraska, Beef Products said it suspected a glitch in its treatment operations, referring to ammonia gas by its chemical name, NH3, according to an e-mail message to school lunch officials.

“The system was stopped for two minutes in order to install a new valve,” the company said. “When the system was restarted, there was product flow for approximately one minute without NH3 flow.”

Similarly, while I have given BPI due credit for leading the industry in testing for the so-called Big Six strains of E. coli, it’s notable that inGermany last summer, 45 people died and almost 4,000 were sickened by a previously unknown strain of E.coli — a strain which by necessity would not be part of BPI’s testing.

So when you hear that LFTB trimmings have been used “for twenty years” without incident, be skeptical.  And keep in mind the words of Eldon Roth himself, quoted in the Moss article:

“Like any responsible member of the meat industry, we are not perfect.”

 

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USDA “Pink Slime” Petition Closes, My Open Letter to Supporters

Exactly three weeks to the day after starting my Change.org petition asking USDA to remove lean, finely textured beef (“LFTB,” aka, “pink slime”) from the ground beef used in school food, I’ve decided we’ve reached an appropriate juncture to close the petition.  The final signature count: 258,632.

Here is my open letter to everyone who signed the petition, a link to which will also be circulated by Change.org:

Dear Supporters:

Only three weeks after launching my Change.org petition asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop the use of so-called “pink slime” (or lean, finely textured beef – “LFTB”) in ground beef destined for school food, we’ve seen some truly extraordinary changes take place.

A mere nine days into the petition (when we’d already reached over 200,000 signatures), USDA announced that starting next school year it will offer school districts a choice of beef either with LFTB or without the filler.  And since that announcement many school districts around the country, including New York City public schools, the nation’s largest district, have indicated they will take advantage of this option and phase out the use of LFTB by this coming fall.   To have achieved this result in such a short time period is phenomenal and shows that our voices were heard loud and clear by USDA.

That said, there is still some work to be done.  Not all school districts feel they can take advantage of USDA’s choice due to cost and logistical issues.  USDA has indicated that it will have more information and guidance for districts after its vendor meeting in April.

Meanwhile, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine garnered the support of 41 House representatives in asking that USDA simply discontinue the use of any beef with LFTB in schools, the original goal of our petition.  Senators Robert Menendez (NJ) and Kristen Gillibrand (NY) have also sent letters to USDA in support of that goal.

Because we now have Congressional representatives to champion this issue on our behalf, I’ve decided that it’s an appropriate time to close my petition.  But you can continue to express your opposition to the use of LFTB in school food by visiting Stop Pink Slime.org, a website generously created and hosted by Jamie Oliver and the Food Revolution, with the endorsement of Moms Rising; Healthy Child, Healthy World; Center for Ecoliteracy; Cook For America; and Food Day.

I’d like to thank all of these organizations, as well as Congresswoman Pingree, Senator Menendez, Senator Gillibrand, Change.org, and most of all, YOU, for taking the time to sign and share my petition.

Together we have seen the power of our collective voices, and I have never felt so optimistic about the ability of parents and other concerned citizens to make meaningful, positive changes in the food served to our nation’s school children.

Thank you again.

Bettina Elias Siegel

That’s my letter to everyone who signed the Change.org petition, but now I’d like to add a message especially for Lunch Tray readers.

A while back, Ed Truitt, a fellow Houston Chronicle blogger, wrote this on his Facebook page:

Dear folks: want to see how to have a civil discussion online? How to “disagree without being disagreeable”? Then you need to check out The Lunch Tray, where Bettina Elias Siegel (and those who comment on her blog) shows us how it can be done.

I take no credit for Ed’s compliment and instead want to pass it directly on to you.  While this controversy over LFTB has been raging in the media, I’ve been taxed in ways I could have never imagined and at times I’ve been nearly absent as a moderator of the comment threads.  Yet I knew the blog was in good hands because TLT’ers were being their usual kind and thoughtful selves, making sure that the discussion remained civil even when it got heated.  So thank you all very much for that.

And even though there have been a few nasty comments directed at me personally (I deleted the worst of these but let some pass through), I want to also commend the majority of pro-LFTB commenters, most of whom are new around here, for also using a civil tone no matter how vehemently they might have disagreed with my petition.

I’ll continue to post here about LFTB as warranted but, absent some unexpected development, I’ll also resume my regular writing about “kids and food, in school and out.”

 

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BPI Makes Accusation of Libel in WSJ Ad, Suspends Some Operations – My Response

On Friday, Beef Products Inc., the manufacturer of Lean Beef Trimmings (commonly referred to as “pink slime”) took out a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal to address its growing public relations crisis. I didn’t see the text of the advertisement until today.  (Here is a photo of it, which you can read by using the zoom feature on your browser.)

As you will see, the ad is divided into two parts.  To the left is a reprint of the article in Food Safety News by Nancy Donley, the food safety advocate who tragically lost a child to E. coli and who claims that opponents of lean, finely textured beef (LFTB) are standing in the way of modern food safety measures.  I addressed Ms. Donley’s argument the same day her piece in Food Safety News appeared.  You can read my open letter to her (to which she has not yet responded) here.

On the right side of the Wall Street Journal ad is a letter from Eldon Roth, founder of BPI, entitled “‘Pink Slime’ Libel To Cost This Country Jobs.”  He writes:

Before last summer we could not have imagined the personal, professional, financial and spiritual impact of the campaign of lies and deceit that have been waged against our company and the lean beef we produce. But over the last several weeks, that campaign has been joined by entertainment media, tabloid journalists, so-called national news — and all to what end? The clear goal expressed by the campaign organizer — put BPI out of business.

It is simply amazing how this mis-information campaign can take a company and product that has long been recognized for its quality and safety and turn the public perception so negative that it now may result in the loss of over 3,000 jobs . . . .

This ad was followed by an announcement today that BPI is temporarily suspending operations at three of its four plants.  According to the Associated Press, “About 200 employees at each of the three plants will get full salary and benefits for 60 days during the suspension. . . .”

I do not know if Mr. Roth refers to me when he speaks of “the campaign organizer” but, assuming that he does, I would like to take this opportunity to respond to his accusations, as well as the news of plant suspensions and potential job losses.

When I started my Change.org petition on March 6th, I had one simple, clearly defined goal:  to ask USDA to revisit its practice of providing school districts with ground beef containing LFTB.  The USDA/schools petition went viral, garnering almost a quarter of a million signatures in a little over a week (and now exceeding that target).  USDA responded to the outpouring of concern by offering schools the option of buying beef without this filler.   And that might have been the end of this story.

But clearly something else arose out of my petition and the media coverage associated with it.  Consumers learned — many for the first time — that USDA allows LFTB to be mixed into the nation’s ground beef supply, up to 15%, without any labeling to disclose that fact.  Reportedly, 70% of beef in this country now contains LFTB.

And as it turns out, consumers are quite unhappy about this fact.

Some people are concerned about food safety, given the pathogenic nature of the raw material used by BPI to make the product.   Its safety record, though now admirable, was somewhat more troubling between 2005 and 2009 when E. coli and salmonella were repeatedly found in its product, as reported by the New York Times.   Some consumers – rightly or wrongly — worry about the use of ammonium hydroxide in the processing of their food.  Some people consider the inclusion of an unlabeled filler to be a form of economic adulteration, in that their package labeled 100% ground beef might only be  85% ground chuck or ground round and the rest a gelatinous meat filler.  And others claim there are aesthetic differences between beef with LFTB and pure ground beef.

Whether any or all of these concerns are valid is almost beside the point.  Our free market is founded on informed consumer choice, but in this case USDA deprived consumers of the ability to make that choice when it made the controversial decision to treat LFTB as “ground beef,” no different from ground chuck or ground round.

Now that the truth about LFTB is coming to light, BPI’s business may be suffering.  But this consumer reaction should not come as much of a surprise to the company;  why else did BPI, according to the Times, lobby USDA back in 2001 to exempt their product from labeling?

As I said in an interview on the very first day of my USDA/schools campaign, the use of LFTB in ground beef is “one of those practices that can thrive only in obscurity.”   Now exposed under intense media scrutiny, BPI is discovering that this is indeed the case.

Though accused of waging a campaign of lies, libel and deceit, I have taken care in every step of this campaign to source my facts (obviously I am limited to publicly available information about LFTB) and to avoid fear-mongering.  Indeed, even at the risk of alienating NPR and the reporter who interviewed me there, I immediately demanded a retraction – one which was read on the air the next day — when I felt the reporter had portrayed me as someone who is stoking unfounded fears about ammonium hydroxide by comparing it to a household “cleaning agent.”

Finally, I’d like to address the issue of potential job losses.  The real human cost arising out of this controversy troubles me deeply.  Mr. Roth’s letter to the contrary, it has never been my intention, stated or implicit, to “put BPI out of business.”  Rather, it is my belief that, like any other company, BPI should be free to sell its product so long as it continues to do so in a safe — and transparent — manner.

The future of LFTB will and should be determined by well informed consumers.  If my petition contributed in any small way to a national conversation about this product, that is only to the good.

 

 

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NEW PHOTO: Lean Finely Textured Beef, From A Different Point of View

I want to share with you a photo sent to me by an anonymous source.

Here’s a photo of Lean Textured Beef (aka “pink slime”) that’s been widely circulated in recent days by the product’s manufacturer, Beef Products Inc.

photo source: Beef Products Inc.

This is a photo of Lean Textured Beef as it purportedly appears in BPI’s plant.  I was told this batch was being held for pathogen testing:

If you’ve watched the film Food Inc., you’ve already seen LFTB in this grayer, block form, and if you don’t mind the unlabeled inclusion of the filler in your burger, the above photo is unlikely to change your mind.  But the two pictures are qualitatively different enough that I felt it was worth comparing the two side by side.

In my opinion, neither looks much like what most consumers think of as “100% ground beef” — i.e., ground chuck or ground round:

 

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