Commissioner Gary Black warned that overreaction could affect food prices if consumers shun ground beef out of fear of what the industry calls “lean, finely textured beef” which has gained the unappetizing nickname “pink slime.” Ground beef prices could rise as much as 25 cents per pound if the produce were prohibited, the Agriculture Department estimates.
“When hysteria hits the marketplace, there’s economic consequences, and that certainly affects working families,” Black said.
The product is derived by slightly warming bones and trimmings to soften the fat and then spinning it rapidly to separate the meat. The fat that’s removed is used in oils while the puttylike meat is added back to ground beef to raise its lean content. To kill bacteria, processors inject ammonium, which occurs naturally in meats.
Department staffers compare the processing to a cook who makes soup from bones and meat scraps. The output is 100 percent beef and 90 percent lean, meaning it has less cholesterol than unprocessed beef.
Online petition campaigns, blogs and e-mails have raised public concerns about the safety of the product.
Black said those concerns are based on misunderstanding.
“Myths exist, both in science and in the issues related to food,” he said, recalling how fears of disease outbreaks related to peppers cost Georgia farmers millions of dollars until the actual source proved to be a few fields in Mexico.
No outbreaks have been attributed to the processed meat in the 20 years its been on the market. The same is true of the ammonium hydroxide added to it and to other foods such as cheese, chocolate and breads since 1974.
The Agriculture Department inspects food, and Black called on the director of meat inspection, Glen Echols, to address the media.
“If you’re talking about the safety of this product, there’s no real concern,” Echols said.
Black said he favors voluntary labeling but opposes making it mandatory. After all, since the processed meat is still beef, how would it be listed differently from the other meat that’s simply ground, he asks.
“It’s beef. It’s safe. It’s inspected,” he said.