What You Need to Know About the Return of Pink Slime

Two years after consumers shunned so-called “pink slime” – the slaughterhouse remnants that are used in some ground beef products – the dubious meat product is back in demand by meat processors and retailers who abandoned it. Record high beef prices are forcing them to ask for the ingredient as a way to lower costs, according to reports.

The additive was coined “pink slime” by former USDA scientist Gerald Zirnstein, who told ABC News in 2012 that “pink slime” was “not fresh ground beef” but a “cheap substitute being added in.” He said 70% of the ground beef sold in the nation’s supermarkets contained “pink slime.”

South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc., the beef producer that was forced to close plants after the backlash and that ultimately became the public face of the “pink slime” controversy, refers to its product as “lean, finely textured beef (LFTB).” Multi-billion dollar conglomerate Cargill Inc., BPI’s competitor, sells what it calls “finely textured beef (FTB).”

Many food establishments, including McDonald’s and grocery store chains Kroger and Safeway, said they would no longer use “pink slime” after ABC first reported its use in hamburgers and other meat products in 2012. The Department of Agriculture said its school lunch program would stop serving “pink slime” to students in response to the outcry.

BPI announced this month that it would start making LFTB again at a factory in Kansas. The company sued ABC for $1.2 billion in 2012, claiming the network misled consumers over its “false and misleading and defamatory” reports; the suit is still pending.

Patty Lovera, assistant director at consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch, says in the video above that “pink slime” was still part of the national food chain even after the panic in 2012. Cargill sells “finely textured beef” to nearly 400 retail, food-service, and food-processing customers, according to The Wall Street Journal. Cargill executive chairman Gregory Page told the newspaper that sales of finely textured beef have “rebounded sharply from their 2012 lows” and that Cargill’s sales “have risen about threefold from their lowest point.”

A Cargill spokesman says “finely textured beef” is a “safe and sustainable way to maximize the amount of beef protein available for people to eat,” while Eric Mitthenthal of the American Meat Institute says there is more demand for LFTB because “the cattle herd is at its lowest since the 1950s, significantly decreasing the supply of beef.”

“The demand is not coming from consumers … consumers have not changed their mind [on pink slime],” adds Lovera. “It’s economics.”

The United States Department of Agriculture addressed the safety of “pink slime” in a blog post on the government agency’s website in 2012: “The process used to produce LFTB is safe and has been used for a very long time. Adding LFTB to ground beef does not make that ground beef any less safe to consume.”Cargill began labeling its “finely textured beef” product in 2013 even though the USDA does not mandate the labeling of FTB and LFTB. The USDA says the LFTB process is “generally recognized as safe” and therefore “it is not required to be included on the label of products.” The USDA also ruled that LFTB is “not filler; it is nutritionally equivalent to 95% lean beef and doesn’t contain connective tissue.”

A Cargill representative told Yahoo that the company’s “finely textured beef,” available since 1993, is “100% pure beef” and “is usually added to ground beef to increase the percentage of muscle protein to fat.” The company describes the process of making this product as “similar to separating milk from cream, those small pieces of beef are separated from the fat. The fat that has been separated is turned into tallow [a form of rendered fat]. It is not added back to the ground beef.”

Lovera, however, says “pink slime” is a “high-risk” meat byproduct that is more likely to be contaminated with harmful bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli. According to Lovera, meat processing companies treat the meat trimmings with ammonium hydroxide gas and citric acid to kill bacteria.

The American Meat Institute confirms the use of ammonium hydroxide and citric acid, but says both are used in numerous food products and both are safe for human consumption.

“Food-grade ammonium hydroxide is used in the process of boneless lean beef trimmings (BLBT),” according to the organization’s website. “The USDA, after consultation with FDA, has determined that this use of ammonium hydroxide is safe and it has been in use for this purpose since 2001. During the two decades these products [LFTB and BLBT] have been produced, they have had an excellent food safety record.”

The Food and Drug Administration lists ammonium hydroxide as a “safe (GRAS) human food ingredient” and acknowledges that, “Although there have been no significant feeding studies specifically designed to ascertain the safety threshold of ammonium compounds as food ingredients, numerous metabolic studies have been reported in the scientific literature. Extrapolation of these findings to the concentrations of ammonium compounds normally present in foods does not suggest that there would be untoward effects at such levels.”

“Pink slime” may be the cheaper alternative, but food retailers should seriously consider whether it’s worth the price, argues Lovera.

“The reason for the outrage was because people felt duped … there was no disclosure,” she notes. “Retailers, grocery stores and fast-food chains have a lot of thinking to do if they want to use it. But the question is if consumers realize it’s back.”

Yahoo asked Cargill and the American Meat Institute to name the food retailers that are using the FTB and LFTB products. Both declined to answer.