This article was written with contributions from Amanda Weaver and Stacy Scramlin.
The process of producing lean finely textured beef, also mis-represented as pink slime, has come under enhanced public scrutiny in the last several weeks. This article is meant to explain the process and provide facts on safety and wholesomeness of these products. Boneless lean beef trimmings and finely textured beef are produced at federally inspected meat processing establishments which are inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection. This inspection process is in place to ensure that meat products are safe and wholesome for consumers. Each inspected meat processor is required to have to a functioning food safety system that is supported by scientific principles which controls food safety hazards called a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plan.
The process used for boneless lean beef trimmings utilizes fatty trimmings which are then heated to about 100°F. Proteins and fat are then separated through centrifugation similar to what is used to separate milk and cream. The proteins are then treated with food grade ammonia, to raise the pH, as a processing aid to kill harmful pathogenic bacteria. The proteins are then frozen on a drum freezer and chipped into small pieces. The chips are then compressed into a block at up to 4100 lbs per square inch and packed into boxes. The process used to produce lean finely textured beef is very similar, but uses citric acid as the processing aid to kill pathogenic bacteria. These chips are about 95 percent lean meat and provide a high quality source of lean beef. This finely textured lean beef is often added to other beef trimmings to raise the lean percentage and increase flavor of ground beef.
A research study was performed by Niebuhr and Dickson and published in 2003 in the Journal of Food Protection examining the safety of lean finely textured beef. Lean finely textured beef was inoculated with E. coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella. After the trimmings were treated with ammonia and compressed into blocks E. coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella were decreased to levels beyond detection indicating that these organisms could not be found with after processing. These products have been used in ground beef for many years to improve flavor and provide a lean, nutritious, safe source of beef. This is a highly innovative and safe process whereby lean trimmings are produced that could not be sorted by hand.