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What does “pink slime” have to do with whether beef broth “gels”?

I’m so fortunate that I know so many wonderful farmers who do what I can not do: grow food. And so many of them, like Chrissie Zaerpoor of Kookoolan Farms of Yamhill, Oregon,  have a very high goal to make sure the food they produce for themselves and the public is healthy and free from additives. Chrissie wrote this blog about pink slime after she got a lot of questions why her beef broth had a gelatinous state when cold.
chicken stock2

The ideal stock is made from a combination of meaty bones for flavor, connective tissue (tendons, cartilage, heads, feet, etc) for gelatin and texture, and hard bones for minerals (primarily calcium but others as well). A well-balanced stock made from good quality ingredients should always “gel” at refrigerator temperatures.

Many of you already know that I came to beef quite late in life: I was a near-vegetarian for my first 40 years with maybe five lifetime total servings of red meat. When I was diagnosed as profoundly anemic, and several years of iron pills and green vegetables did not bring my iron levels up, I was finally ready to take the plunge for eating red meat. But the more I read about commodity red meat, the less willing I was to eat it. This finally erupted in the famous temper tantrum that launched Kookoolan Farms: “if I want to eat grassfed beef, I’m just going to have to learn to do it myself.” I’ve been reading about the commodity meat industry for more than 15 years, and every year I think I’ve finally learned all its dirty secrets, but every year I learn a little more and am saddened to discover that it really is just a little worse than I thought it was. This week an off comment in a news story in “The Week” magazine got us off on a research tangent, and I learned more about “pink slime” than I had previously known – including a key “a-ha” moment with the answer to the question so many of you have asked me over the years: “Why doesn’t premade broth or stock gel? It always gels up with no problem when I make it from Kookoolan Farms bones. What’s the difference?” Now I know…. read on. (for the full details you can easily pull up the Wikipedia article about pink slime).

For starters, the formal name for “pink slime” is Lean Finely Textured Beef, or LFTB. It’s interesting to note off the bat that this highly processed beef derivative is “approved for limited human consumption” in the U.S., but is completely banned both in the European Union and in Canada. In March 2012 (interestingly, the latest date for which I could find data) more than 70% of all ground beef sold in the U.S. contained the additive. Also interesting: ground beef can contain up to 15% LFTB with no labelling required to announce its presence. In fact, the only way to avoid LFTB in grocery store ground beef is to buy USDA certified organic, in which LFTB is disallowed.

wiki pink slime

Lean Finely-Textured Beef, AKA “pink slime,” photo from Wikipedia. 95% lean. All indications are that there are no food safety issues associated with this highly-processed “salvage” product, which means _it’s never labelled as an ingredient_ on any products you buy.

So what is LFTB? It’s the very last scraps of meat and connective tissue still clinging to the bones and hides after a skilled butcher has already removed all of the usable meat with a knife. Some of these source areas are considered to be the areas most likely to be contaminated by pathogenic bacteria. These “source materials” are then warmed to about body temperature in order to soften fats and connective tissues. Originally the bones were scraped and rubbed to remove the last bits of clinging muscle, but the resultant product was up to 20% calcium and therefore “not nutritionally equivalent to beef.” At that point the method changed, and now most LFTB is produced by centrifuging. The centrifuging also separates the fat from the lean in exactly the same way that centrifuging separates, say, heavy cream from skim milk. So the resultant product is around 95% lean (i.e. 5% fat). Having been processed at body temperature, the presence of pathogenic bacteria is now considered a given, so the product is exposed to ammonia gas to weaken the cell walls, and then the product is rolled out thinly and flash frozen under high pressure, crushing all the pathogen cells. This crushing both kills any bacteria and also results in very little structural integrity for the muscle cells, hence the “finely textured” nature of the product. The product is then extruded as a pale pink paste through slender tubes, frozen, and shipped to meat processors as an additive. The ammonia-gas-and-crush process is so effective at killing bacteria that in 2007 the USDA declared that the process would be “exempt from routine testing of meat used in hamburger and sold to the general public.”

Why do meat processors produce and use LFTB? In a word, profit. This is a way to squeeze literally every last gram of flesh off the bones. Also, because it is so lean, LFTB is used as an additive in ground beef to raise the lean percentage: consumers are willing to pay a premium for leaner ground beef, and using 97% lean LFTB in a mix allows the less expensive fatty ground beef, mixed with the extremely lean and extremely cheap LFBT, to then be sold as higher-priced lean ground beef. Up to 15% LFTB is allowed, and there is no labelling requirement.

You’ll also find LFBT in beef hotdogs, beef pepperoni, meatballs, summer sausages, and superthin beef lunch meats and bologna, where LFBT may comprise up to 25% of the total product — but it will never be labelled as such.

You’ve likely read the staggering claim that one patty of ground beef may contain the DNA of more than a thousand cattle from more than 10 different countries. THIS is how that happens. And when you read about recalls of millions of pounds of ground beef, it’s because one animal’s scraps get spread so widely into the food net.

beef hotdogs

Hot dogs may taste good, but did you ever think about what it means that they are “highly processed”?

Interestingly, one of the USDA’s senior food safety inspectors dissented on the USDA’s ruling that LFTB can still be called “meat.” He argued vigorously that LFTB is not “meat” because it also contains connective tissues such as tendons and cartilage, and further stated in reports that it is “not meat,” but actually “salvage,” and should not be allowed for human consumption. The USDA never tested independently for food safety, but the largest corporate producer of LFTB, BPI Corporation, commissioned a study from Iowa State University that found no safety concerns. Because the entity most benefitting from this result also paid for the study, one can doubt whether it’s a truly independent research.

Does it matter that commodity ground beef almost certainly contains LFBT? Maybe not. Associated Press food editor and cookbook author J.M. Hirsh compared the taste of two burgers: one with LFTB and one without. He described the LFTB-containing burgers as smelling the same, but being less juicy and with less flavor. To my knowledge no food safety incident has ever occurred due to the presence of pink slime, but you just can’t be sure whether the recalls have been ultimately caused by LFTB because it’s not tested, and it’s not labelled.

Ammonia is present in many other processed foods, as the BPI (Beef Products Incorporated) web site defensively points out: the finished ground beef contains 200 ppm ammonia, compared to 440 ppm for the bun and 813 ppm for the cheese. In other words, these chemicals are already in lots of other processed foods, and are assumed safe, and therefore are not required to be labelled because “you don’t need to know.” That, my friend, is just one of many similar decisions made every day on your behalf and without your input. Here is the USDA’s fact sheet on LFTB.

stock pots on the stove

Beef bones from Kookoolan Farms have “stuff” still on them, never cleaned by centrifuge. Those bits of tendon, cartilage, and other connective tissues give you the silky, velvety, gelatinous texture you expect from homemade beef stock.

Meanwhile, bringing this back around to stocks and broths, the “gelling” process that occurs when you make stocks and broths is due to the presence of scraps of connective tissues and collagen still clinging to the bones. When you buy pre-made stocks and broths in a can or box or in the frozen aisle, one assumes that these are generally made from the cheapest available ingredients. The lowest common denominator of commodity beef bones, even those from grassfed beef, would generally speaking now be so clean (thanks to centrifuging) that there is no connective tissue left on the bones. Thus purchased stock does not gel. Maybe that’s why they add so much salt, too: store-bought just doesn’t have as much flavor as homemade. Last week I observed organic grassfed beef stock in the freezer section for Fred Meyer for a shocking $12/quart. Are people actually buying that rather than making their own higher-quality stock FOR FREE?

Kookoolan Farms beeves are hand-processed using only skilled butchers and knives, no high-tech centrifuging machines, no bleach, no ammonia gas, no LFTB, no strange gasses in the packages to preserve color, nothing but beef. The meat in your share all comes from identically one animal. And your soup bones are hand-cleaned with a knife, leaving plenty of good “stuff” on the bones to give you a rich, gelatinous, natural stock. As always, you may get bones, fat, and organ meats with your beef share at your option, and at no extra charge. Those grass-fed beef bones sell for $3.50/lb and more in the grocery store, but you’ll never pay extra for them from Kookoolan Farms.

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