When I worked in a local packing plant for a few months in 1976, I met a friend of my father who had found his niche. He said it was the best job in the plant.
His job was in rendering.
Rendering, down in the basement, was where everything other than edible beef went. Sometimes even whole animals deemed unsafe by USDA inspectors would go down the chute into rendering.
Dad’s friend told me it was hot in rendering, because everything down there was heated to melt tallow into oil and kill bacteria and germs. It smelled bad. It was dirty. But the pay was good.
That’s because few people wanted to do it.
The reason I’m sharing this memory is because rendering is where the stuff called lean finely textured beef (LFTB) used to go. Then it went into hamburger. Then, after a TV news report, it didn’t.
Now maybe it’s back.
ABC News was a defendant in a lawsuit brought by Beef Products Incorporated (BPI) in which BPI accused ABC of disrupting markets for their product, LFTB, with a pink slime smear in 2012 in the form of an investigative news report. As a result, BPI said they were forced to close all but one of four facilities and lay off 700 workers.
Next they declared bankruptcy.
BPI’s founder, Eldon Roth, perfected his method of separating that last little bit of connective tissue and muscle from tallow, extruding it, then passing it through a grinder to a very fine textured substance USDA calls beef.
LFTB is used as low cost “filler” for conventionally processed ground beef, which is typically bovine muscle tissue. One concern about LFTB was that it came from close to the animal’s hide, where injections or topical insecticides or anthelmintics are administered to live animals.
Visible injection sites into muscle tissue are trimmed and sent to rendering. They represent waste. To avoid that, cattle producers have been encouraged to avoid direct injection in favor of placing vaccinations and pharmaceuticals just under the skin in areas of less valuable cuts of meat, like the neck.
Roth’s method of refining and sterilizing the product drew attention when his process was featured in the movie Food, Inc. a few years ago. At the heart of the controversy was his sterilization method—utilizing an ammonia product to kill pathogens and bacteria—as well as the origin and purity of its beef.
Additionally, ammonia is banned in Europe and Canada, so LFTB wasn’t exportable to those markets. Citric acid is considered a more desirable substitute for ammonia, but it’s also more expensive.
For a time LFTB had a distinct ammonia odor to it, which added to the controversy over its purity. It was LFTB’s detractors who named it pink slime, which ABC news then amplified in their reports.
I remember swearing off fast food burgers when a strong ammonia smell emitted from the bun, suggesting (to my nose at least) that the $1.99 hamburger inside was impure. Then, while watching the Food, Inc., where the ammonia treatment was revealed, I understood. Years later, when I returned to the fast food store for what they called a premium burger, I found the ammonia smell gone and in its place a granular crumbly patty that was a little too chewy and tough to be the high quality tender beef it was supposed to be.
I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the texture came from LFTB.
Today, neither the ammonia burgers nor the granular premium burgers I tried are served, which might coincide with the shutdown of BPI’s processing plants following coverage by ABC news that resulted in BPI suing ABC for $1.9 billion.
ABC settled out of court, about halfway through the trial. That may have been a wise move, because the jury trial was being held in a rural small town in South Dakota where state law would have allowed trebling damages caused by food smear defamation to $5.7 billion.
The amount of the settlement was not revealed, but ABC News released a statement saying they stood by their reporting.
Offal can be a profit enemy or ally depending on whether it goes into the tank or finds its way to the grocer’s freezer case. BPI takes rendering to a whole new level, because their process rendered food from offal.
At the heart of the matter lies packer profits and how far consumers will allow packers and their regulators at USDA to go in search of that. At some point consumers must reasonably expect that to stop at something reasonable. Reasonable for consumers usually centers on price, and expectations for healthy palatable food.
According to USDA, LFTB filled the bill.
Richard Oswald is a fourth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri. He is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.