Cargill Inc., among the world's biggest beef processors, is taking the road less traveled and has decided to disclose ingredients for their version of what consumers and media call "pink slime."
Rival pink slime producer, Beef Products Inc., nearly shut down in 2012 after the media and consumer backlash caused such a dent that they had to close 3 of their 4 plants and lay off hundreds of employees. The media frenzy ball got rolling after a minor revelation in Food Inc., demonstrations by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, and Diane Sawyer reporting for ABC News.
It turns out, Cargill has been using a similar product and process in their beef since 1993. It is likely that they escaped the avalanche because they use a different treatment for it; one that is likely to be welcomed by the public and overlooked, but could end up coming back to bite them in the near future if they do not learn more about the process. When dealing with Big AgriBiz, it is often Fool's Gold the consumer has actually purchased at great cost to their health and pockets.
Is Cargill's sensational new step something to get excited about? Or does it reveal something else?
BPI wound up on the butcher's block after consumers realized their product they called Lean Finely Textured Beef was actually a cheap filler made from unmarketable scraps and trimmings mechanically separated to remove the fat and then doused in ammonium hydroxide gas to kill deadly bacteria. And, of course, we were none the wiser because this chemically treated filler does not require labeling because it was called "beef" by the USDA. Manufacturers are now allowed to disclose it on packages if they choose since the pink slime debacle. The USDA continues to call this safe and nutritious - it remains in school lunches which might explain why BPI has one plant still open.
Cargill saw demand for its own version of the product, called finely textured beef, plummet by 80 percent. They surveyed over 3,000 consumers for a year-and-a-half to get insight about people's perception on ground beef and its process.
BPI blamed consumers for finding out. Unlike BPI, Cargill is not chastising their customers, which can make them seem more endearing. They did not get lambasted online, because they use a citric acid treatment to kill pathogens. Arguably, way better perceived by the public, or at least edible.
But they are banking on the fact that most people don't know what's involved in citric acid treatment. Perhaps their surveys helped them to proceed confidently.
Citric Acid, from Lemons right? Not so much...
Citric acid sounds really great, right? It's in the majority of food items at the grocery and conjures images of fresh lemons, vitamin C and all things natural. While citrus fruits are a great source for citric acid, this is not how Big Food is able to use it so cheaply in everything.
Most citric acid today is produced by corn (GMO) and sometimes by combining a mold with molasses (a byproduct of sugar cane). A majority of store-bought sugar comes from genetically modified sugar beets; so how likely is it for citric acid to come from molasses versus one of our largest crops - corn?
A report from Weston A. Price Foundation revealed why many people have an allergy to citric acid:
"Citric acid" is produced by fermentation of crude sugars. When "citric acid" is produced from corn, manufacturers do not take the time or undertake the expense to remove all corn protein. During processing, the remaining protein is hydrolyzed, resulting in some processed free glutamic acid (MSG). "Citric acid" may also interact with any protein in the food to which it is added, freeing up more glutamic acid.
Making it even more difficult for the MSG-sensitive individual, in February of this year , the FDA approved Sanova, an antimicrobial rinse, for use on red meats. The product, composed of "sodium chloride" and "citric acid," is claimed by its manufacturer, the Alcide Corporation, to kill 99 percent of pathogens on carcasses. Sanova is also approved for use on poultry carcasses, fruits and vegetables. Efforts are underway by the manufacturer to approve the rinse for use on processed foods. Foods treated with Sanova are not required to disclose the fact that "sodium chloride" and "citric acid" were used on them.
What we should be asking...
And here's the question people forget when distracted by the shock of finding out about ammonium hydroxide gas and citric acid treatments - it is the reason for its necessity. One of the first questions from 2012 should have been..."Wait, there's e.coli and salmonella in my beef ?" And MRSA.
From confined animal feeding lots (CAFOs) and hurried, unsafe labor practices. Hard to deny that gem after watching Food Inc., which isn't the only source for that kind of information. Furthermore, food irradiation has been used for years to treat meat for "safety." The radiation stickers (radura symbol) are removed before they arrive at the store because it is not considered an ingredient or process. This deader-than-dead food product also contains zapped e.coli and presumably fecal matter. But it's safe and nutritious to feed school kids....
It is very likely that Cargill's version will end up in school cafeterias, nursing homes, and hospitals because it sounds better and schools are already clamoring for the cheaper filler, even BPI's gas-treated kind. Likewise, supermarket chains that dropped BPI's fare are likely to pick up Cargill's version because citric acid is ubiquitous in food already and they would reason that the disclosed ingredient would offer all the choice needed for consumers. Cargill has been doing the necessary prep work to reap the benefits of an upswing for the pink slime market. They plan to voluntarily label their beef with the words "finely textured beef" starting early 2014 for packaging to retailers and summer of 2014 for direct-to-costumer packaging.
While a step towards transparency is definitely admirable and what consumers want, it continues to reveal stomach-churning practices of the food industry that can lead to chronic health problems and higher healthcare costs down the road. The other question that remains is, "Why only now...after 20 years?"
For good reason: it is definitely easy to blame corporations for lack of transparency and crude, hidden ingredients. But the other big players that often escape scrutiny are the ones that approved them; the ones we pay big bucks to regulate: the FDA and mainly, the USDA which is already dropping standards for meat inspection.