Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Choices Magazine examines lean finely textured beef ('pink slime')

A recent theme issue in Choices Magazine, a publication of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), examined lean finely textured beef (LFTB), an ammonia-treated beef filler product widely known as 'pink slime.' 

To some extent, the authors of the theme overview, J. Ross Pruitt and Joshua D. Detre, share the beef industry's view that the long controversy over this beef product is unfair to the industry.
The use of the moniker “pink slime” is an example of how calling into question the safety and/or quality of a food product/production practice can do irreparable damage to the faith in the U.S. agricultural supply chain. As prices and markets continue to adjust due to the inability of ground beef suppliers to use LFTB, consumers are paying more per pound for ground beef. The LFTB case has impacts beyond the market price of ground beef, especially for the employees of BPI who lost their jobs and the communities who benefitted from the presence of BPI. While it is not yet clear if longer-term adjustments to the beef cattle industry will be tied back to the media scare over LFTB, it is evident that educating consumers about food production is a challenge not to be ignored.
At the same time, the theme issue includes plenty of grounds for thinking the industry could have handled this matter better.  For example, Erika K. Eckley and Roger A. McEowen review the history of the food disparagement laws, which BPI, the company responsible for LFTB, is using to sue ABC News following a feature story last year that criticized the product.  This review makes these food disparagement laws look like awful public policy, and the authors doubt BPI will succeed.

A long time-line of the history of 'pink slime,' on the Food Safety News website, recounts many low moments for this product, including a shipment of contaminated product that was the subject of an unsuccessful recall (apparently the product was sold before it could be recovered) and an occasion when the product generated complaints from food service workers because of strong ammonia smells.  Important early coverage included this article by Michael Moss at the New York Times in 2009.

The Council on Food, Agriculture, and Resource Economics (C-FARE), an AAEA outreach organization (for which I am a board member), is jointly sponsoring a media event and discussion on February 15 with the Federation of Animal Science Societies.

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