Op-Ed: Lean, Finely Textured Beef

This opinion editorial below ran this morning in the Omaha World Herald which was written by President Steve Nelson regarding the “lean, finely textured beef.”

A month ago I had never heard the term “pink slime.” I first thought it might be a monster from the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Fast forward a month, and farmers and ranchers across Nebraska and the country are all too familiar with this term and the wake left by a wave of public concern questioning the safety of our food supply, specifically ground beef.

As we now know, “pink slime” isn’t a monster from a horror film but a monster of a different kind — one fueled by hype, hysteria and a haze of misinformation that made its way into the national and social media circles over the past few weeks. For the record, “pink slime” is actually called “lean, finely textured beef.” It is lean beef that has been separated from the trimmings that result when beef is converted into cuts desired by consumers. The beef is treated with food-grade ammonium hydroxide and added to ground beef to make it more lean (an obvious health benefit). The ammonia treatment has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration since 1974 as a way to kill bacteria. It’s a common practice used in numerous other products such as puddings and baked goods that are consumed by Americans daily without all the drama.

Widely spread and completely inaccurate reports that the product consisted of inedible beef parts scraped up from the processing room floor didn’t help consumer confidence. The “pink slime” monster raised the fears of consumers, particularly parents. The misinformation frenzy went so far as to lead the USDA to bow to pressure from school districts that also had been frightened into clamoring for beef products free of lean, finely textured beef for school lunch programs.

In agreeing to offer alternatives to school districts, the USDA turned its back on long-standing, proven science that shows finely textured, lean beef is safe for everyone, including children. While privately owned companies are expected to listen to consumers, the USDA is the federal agency charged with oversight of food safety. Its decision to cave to hysteria rather than stand for proven science only created further doubt about a product the agency openly acknowledges is safe.

There is a growing trend where hype and hysteria seem to trump facts and science. This trend is particularly concerning to farmers and ranchers. Agriculture as a whole is built on the foundation of science and research. Lean, finely textured beef is a case of science being applied to the food system. It allows for efficiencies and minimizes waste, all while being safe for consumers. The fact that it’s been demonized only furthers fears that rhetoric and half-truths seem to be good enough to dismantle what science has allowed us to build for the benefit of our customers. The dismissal of science in favor of hype doesn’t bode well for any of us, particularly those of us who like to eat.

As Nebraska farmers and ranchers we are proud to be an integral part of providing the safest food in the world. The pink slime saga, however, only reinforced a message that many of us involved in agriculture have long feared. We’ve lost a connection that we used to share with our customers. There is a problem when today’s farming and food production practices are so foreign to the average folks that they easily lend themselves to “shock and awe” campaigns that raise the most heightened of consumers’ fears. There is little mystery in what we do. We’ve used science, research and, more importantly, the values our parents and grandparents gave to us to move our Nebraska farms forward. Our history is not one of talking openly about what we do in agriculture because, quite frankly, it never seemed there was that much interest.

That has clearly changed.

Our pledge is to do more to explain what we do on the farm and ranch and why we do it. In return, all we’d ask is for people to keep an open mind and not be afraid to ask questions before forming opinions. pink slime is the perfect example of how a lack of communication can cause plenty of angst with no true benefit. Our hope moving forward on food issues is for discussions that are a little more founded in science and little less on slime.

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