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Published October 01, 2012, 11:32 AM

Setting the record straight

If lean, finely textured beef were in your hamburger, could you tell the difference?

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — If lean, finely textured beef were in your hamburger, could you tell the difference?

Might you prefer it?

Robert Maddock, an associate professor in the North Dakota State University Animal Sciences department, asked that question of cattlemen and others attending the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association 83rd Annual Convention and Trade Show in Fargo, N.D. Sept. 27 to 29. About 360 were expected for the three-day event.

“I couldn’t tell,” said Jason Zahn of Zahn Ranch in Towner, N.D. He said they were about the same. “I thought they were both good.” Turns out the majority at the demonstration said the meat was “smooth” textured, but not necessarily worse.

Maddock acquired hamburger patties from Beef Products Inc. of Dakota Dunes, S.D. The BPI-supplied patties included 15 percent LFTB. He offered beef industry visitors a look at both raw samples and cooked samples. A rough majority in the room could tell the difference, but no one indicated they didn’t like either product.

The industry has decades of experience producing the product. Some “blind” taste panels show consumers prefer burger product with the LFTB. LFTB percentages in hamburger normally range from 10 to 15 percent, according to Jeremy Jacobsen, a BPI spokesman at the company’s headquarters.

The product gained infamy in March 2011 when national news organizations picked up stories about the product, amplifying a derogatory “pink slime” nickname.

In September, BPI sued ABC News Inc., for repeated “false and misleading and defamatory” statements about the product. The suit, filed in Union County, S.D., names news anchor Diane Sawyer and Gerald Zirnstein, a U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist who referred to the product as pink slime.

Boosting pH

Maddock said some critics and consumers reacted to the fact that the product is exposed to ammonium hydroxide gas, a process that boosts the pH level, making it slightly more acidic, which kills some harmful bacteria that can make consumers ill if the meat isn’t fully cooked before it’s eaten.

Kasey Carlin, another NDSU associate professor, discussed the technical side of LFTB. She said it is lean meat trimmed off large cuts of beef, especially on wholesale cuts where specific fat limits are set by the market.

To make LFTB, the fatty trimmings are heated to 100 degrees. The product is then centrifuged, separating fat from the lean, and the final product is 95 percent lean. Living muscle is normally 7 pH, but reduces to about a 5.6 pH after butchering. Processors expose the LFTB to a “puff” of ammonia gas, which increases the meat to a 9.6 pH level. This makes the product more alkaline, killing the E. coli and salmonella bacteria, which can cause illness if the meat is not fully cooked, she explained.

A 3-ounce, single portion of conventional hamburger — about the size of a deck of cards — naturally contains 100 parts per million (ppm) of ammonia. A burger with 15 percent LFTB is about 200 ppm of ammonia — or double, Carlin says.

To compare, raw onions naturally contain 340 ppm of ammonia, and ketchup contains 400 ppm of ammonia or an amount equivalent to 675 beef patties per day.

Looking at it another way, Carlin noted that a 15 percent LFTB beef burger patty contains 40 milligrams of ammonia. A 120-pound American consumer typically ingests 17 grams of ammonia per day and it’s safe to consume up to 27 grams (27,000 milligrams) per day.

Consumer confidence

BPI’s Jacobsen said the company “still is in the process of restoring consumer confidence.”

The company had 1,500 employees at four locations. It now has about 500 employees at its South Sioux City, Neb., plant, but locations at Garden City, Kan., Amarillo, Texas, and Waterloo, Iowa, remain idled. The company is family-owned by Eldon and Regina Roth. He says BPI supplied the bulk of the market for the product, although Cargill Inc., makes a similar product.

BPI’s 257-page complaint against ABC News seeks $1.2 billion in damages. “We’re committed to getting the facts out and restoring our business,” Jacobsen said. For information on the case, visit www.beefisbeef.com.

Maddock said he’s seen information that indicates some of the market is coming back for the product — a bit in the domestic product, but more in export markets. He said if those markets are short on food, they’re “more than willing to accept the product.”

The Stockmen’s convention ended Sept. 29. Look for more coverage in the Oct. 8 issue of Agweek.

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