Web Exclusive | April 2012 | By Brendan O’Brien

The Pink Slime Dilemma

Public outcry sparks debate over what to do with lean finely textured beef.

One month after the “pink slime” controversy initially made waves across the U.S., a new report shows that consumers are still concerned about the contents of the meat they eat at quick serves.

The controversy, ignited after an ABC News report detailed the use of the additive lean finely textured beef (LFTB) in fast food burgers and tacos, is forcing quick-serve operators to set the record straight with customers and re-evaluate what they put in their food.

According to a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive Inc., 76 percent of adults indicated a level of concern about LFTB being used as an additive in the meat they consume, while 30 percent stated they were “extremely concerned.”

The poll, conducted in collaboration with Red Robin International Inc., which says it does not use LFTB in its burgers, also found that 88 percent of adults are at least aware of the issue.

Quick-service giants have sought cover from the issue in a variety of ways. Wendy’s, for example, responded with ads in eight major daily newspapers telling the public that it does not use LFTB. Wendy’s spokesman Bob Bertini says that while the ads were an unusual step for the company, they were necessary to ensure Wendy’s stood out from “the clutter.”

“We had to set the record straight. We wanted to make it clear what our beef standards are and what we stand for in terms of the quality of our product,” Bertini says. “We felt it was important given the confusion to add some clarity to the conversation surrounding Wendy’s.”

Wendy’s also took advantage of the ads to tell consumers that all of its beef comes from cattle raised in North America and that the company does not use fillers, additives, or preservatives.

“It costs us [to run the ads], but we are not willing to compromise our standards,” Bertini says. “We can’t speak for others in the industry, but we wanted to do what we felt was right for Wendy’s.”

McDonald’s released a statement at the height of the controversy, stating that it removed LFTB from its supply chain last August. Other quick-service chains have attempted to have a dialogue about “pink slime” with their customers, using the media to explain their practices with LFTB.

While quick serves attempt to do damage control with consumer outcry against “pink slime,” the food industry is trying to make sense of how the controversy was ignited in the first place and how it should treat LFTB moving into the future.

“What has to happen in the future is quick-service companies have to start thinking about the implications of virtually all the things that they say and do.”

According to the experts, lean finely textured beef is trimmed from larger beef and steak pieces, then slightly heated and spun, which separates the fat from the lean beef. The product is treated with ammonium hydroxide, an antimicrobial agent that is commonly used throughout the food industry to improve food safety, and added to regular beef product.

John Stanton, a professor in food marketing at St. John’s University, says LFTB is harmless and that customers angry over its use don’t clearly understand what it is.

“[Suppliers] are creating meat that is 90 percent protein at a very economical price, and they let the food police and the online [critics] basically ruin a really good product,” Stanton says.

He says the term pink slime was used internally at beef suppliers, and that their failure to realize how harshly the public would perceive it is at the root of their problem.

“There are no longer internal expressions, everything is external and everything is available to everybody,” he says. “What I think has to happen in the future is that [quick-service companies] have to start thinking about what are the implications of virtually all the things that they say and do.”

Some of the controversy has been the result of consumers being misinformed, confirms Ryan Cox, assistant professor of meat science at the University of Minnesota.

“As we continue into the information age, we are seeing a very good thing in the fact that people are learning more and more about where their food comes from,” Cox says. “But, in so doing, there is ... information about processes that they do not fully understand. These are fairly long-standing practices in agriculture.”

Cox says the agriculture industry is and should be interested in transparency. The LFTB controversy is “an opportunity for the agriculture and food industries to tell their story and explain what they are doing,” Cox says.

Still, after the uproar caused by the ABC News report, many in quick service are likely to avoid using LFTB. And some in the industry are happy to know it will become a less significant part of menus nationwide.

“It’s actually really exciting that the public is getting excited about the fact that there is crap in their beef,” says Hans Hess, CEO of Elevation Burger, which serves grass-fed, free-range, organic beef.

Hess says the company is taking advantage of the “pink slime” controversy to remind customers about where its beef comes from. Signs will be displayed in restaurants stating that Elevation Burger does not use LFTB.

Why? “Just in case those people that come to us just for taste and do not realize what they are eating is pretty darn good for them, that they can have that assurance,” Hess says.