MARSHALL - County Fair Store Manager Lonny Serreyn is a beef and meat veteran and said until the "pink slime" term was coined, no one in the industry even gave the term "Lean, Finely Textured Beef" a second thought.
Even the top Democrat on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.
"I'm an old meat manager myself, and it's something that has been handled in the product for the last 20 years without the public having knowledge of what it was," Serreyn said. "We meat cutters had no clue what it was. I've been a sausage maker and meat cutter and I remember when they used the term 'mechanically-deboned product' in hot dogs. This is kind of the same thing. You're taking trimmings and making it so all the fat is out; that's why the trimmings are so lean."
U.S. 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson can't help but chuckle when he talks about the "pink slime" phenomenon. He finds it hard to believe an innocent, private email that included the slang term could carry so much of a shock value and cause such a societal stir with the American public.
"It's done a lot of damage," Peterson said. "It's a typical deal where people don't understand what's going on really. It's hard to say what the actual impact will be."
The ammonia-treated beef additive has created a dilemma in the U.S., not because it's bad for you or lacks nutrition, but because of the negative connotation surrounding its appearance - and its most unfortunate nickname.
The beef came to be referred to as "Lean, Finely Textured Beef" before a scientist from the United States Department of Agriculture came up with the name "pink slime." That derogatory name became public in 2009 and recent national stories have made it notoriously famous, so much so that fast-food chains and supermarkets don't want anything to do with it and school districts around the country want it removed from school lunch programs. And three plants that produce the LFTB have been shut down.
"They had this guy study it from some university, and he wrote an e-mail calling it 'pink slime' that was never supposed to be made public," Peterson said. "That's how this came about. Somehow or other it got in the public domain, but the guy who studied it determined there was no safety issue. But he said it's awful looking stuff that it's 'pink slime.'"
Treating food with ammonia is hardly a new practice. Ammonia was cleared by U.S. health offices nearly four decades ago and is used in the making of many foods. Ammonia is used with "pink slime" because the fatty trimmings used to make it are known to be more susceptible to contamination than other cuts of beef. Ammonia kills pathogens such as E coli and salmonella.
"Using ammonia is a safe way to do it; it's a completely safe feature," Serreyn said. "You have to kill the bacteria. It's a tough situation, but every customer who has talked to me about it, I tell them it's 100 percent safe because it is."
Peterson doesn't necessarily agree with the notion that cattle farmers will be hurt most by the "pink slime" controversy, since cattle prices are high now.
"It might actually help farmers, because it might raise the price of beef," he said. "I think it's more likely to increase the price of cattle. We're short of cattle right now in the country. We have the lowest herd of cattle right now than we've had in a long time, so prices are up, prices are pretty good right now."
So who will be most affected? That depends on where you live, or shop. If the cheaper alternative of beef that is made with "pink slime" isn't available, it's the consumer who could end up paying at the check-out line, Peterson said.
"You know who this is going to hurt? Consumers," he said. "Poor people who are having a hard time making ends meet the way it is. It's going to raise the price of hamburger; it's going to take another million-and-a-half cattle to make up for it, and there's no good reason for taking (LFTB beef) away."
Peterson said although there is no scientific proof that "pink slime" is unhealthy, companies who own the stores that sell it have felt pressure to get rid of it because of the bad publicity it's received in the last month.
"There was no scientific reason for getting rid of it, but the retailers are so cautious about any negative publicity," he said. "What a lot of folks don't understand with food in this country, the big retailers are the ones who drive this. Everybody blames the packers, they blame Cargill, or Tyson, but it's the stores that make the decisions that actually drive this. Some of those big companies, under consumer pressure, bad publicity, whatever, decided not to use this anymore."
Reports estimate that "pink slime" is incorporated into 25 to 30 percent of the ground beef sold in the U.S.
County Fair prides itself on its in-house meat cutting and processing, although it does sell the small tubes of beef like other stores do. County Fair Meat Manager Bill Maisch said the LFTB story has been sensationalized by the national media and on the Internet. He said LFTB has been added to meat as long as he's been in the business.
"We start with whole muscle meat to begin with and blend it down to make different grades of leanness," Maisch said. "Any filler we buy, it may have been in there but we never knew because it was never labeled. It's still 100 percent protein. Everything that comes in now is labeled 'LFTB free.' They actually want us to make it some kind of selling point, but to me it's a non-issue."
Maisch said sales of ground beef haven't declined and he's only been asked by a couple of customers about LFTB.
Hy-Vee issued a statement on its website from its corporate office that said after it decided to stop purchasing ground beef containing "Lean Finely Textured Beef," customers had asked to continue carrying it because they wanted to support companies that provide jobs in the Midwest. After hearing that feedback, Hy-Vee decided to offer both kinds of ground beef - either with or without LFTB. That transition is under way, the website said.
Wal-Mart purchases and sells LFTB since it is inspected and approved by the USDA and is considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration, according to its website. The retail giant did issue a news release on the topic, saying "Walmart and Sam's Club will begin offering fresh ground beef that does not contain LFTB. We are working aggressively with our suppliers to have new offerings in our stores and clubs as quickly as possible."
In response to customer concerns, fast food operations like McDonald's and Burger King have stopped buying meat with LFTB.