Five weeks before the Internet went mad over the presence of “pink slime” in ground beef across the U.S., the product’s creator was being inducted into the Nebraska Business Hall of Fame.
It was Feb. 2, 2012, and Eldon Roth – a man without a college degree – was being celebrated for his life’s work: inventing a method of extracting lean beef from the scraps that would otherwise have been discarded during the butchering process. He was hailed as an innovator in his field, not only for utilizing previously wasted beef, but also for an almost fanatical concern with food safety. The Dakota Dunes, South Dakota-based company he founded, Beef Products, Inc., had developed a reputation for going beyond federal sanitation guidelines in order to prevent bacteria and other microbes from infiltrating its product, according to food scientists who routinely visited the plant. But mostly it was known for producing a leaner and less expensive beef product by combining conventional ground beef with Roth’s unique innovation: lean finely textured beef, or LFTB.
At the Feb. 2 hall of fame induction, Roth thanked Nebraskans for supporting his company since its founding in 1981, and philosophically reflected on his more than three decades in the industry. “Some of the things that you do in life,” Roth said, “at the time, you have no idea what they’re gonna mean.”
In a matter of weeks, Roth and BPI would be the focus of an 11-segment ABC News investigation that slammed the processor for putting “pink slime” in the American food supply and for misleading consumers about its beef products. Soon after, BPI was forced to shut three of its four plants and lay off more than 700 employees after fast food chains, supermarkets, and public schools stopped serving beef that included LFTB. The company went from producing 5 million pounds of LFTB per week to less than 2 million. The company Roth built over 30 years was hobbled in less than 30 days.
The “pink slime” coverage also completely changed ground beef in the U.S. According to industry officials, LFTB is now in an estimated 5% of our beef, down from 70% at this time last year. And while the USDA had planned to purchase 7 million pounds of ground beef with LFTB for use in public schools during the spring 2012, only 1.2 million pounds has been ordered for the entire 2012-2013 school year.
As the meat industry is again in the media spotlight after a series of reports about horse meat showing up in “beef” products all over Europe, the “pink slime” story is still playing itself out in courthouses, law offices, and the one BPI plant still in operation.
The company is still hanging on. After the ABC News reports, BPI launched an extensive public relations campaign, including the website beefisbeef.com, in an attempt to inform the public — and correct what it says is widespread misinformation — about LFTB. The company also filed a $1.2 billion lawsuit against ABC News, lead anchor Diane Sawyer, reporter Jim Avila, two former USDA scientists, and others in September, claiming that those defendants published around 200 false and disparaging statements about BPI and LFTB.
Before all the coverage, BPI routinely let reporters inside its plant. Today, the Roth family and BPI employees generally won’t speak to members of the media, even by phone. In fact, most of the players in the “pink slime” story — including the scientist who coined the term, the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver who “manufactured” pink slime on his show, ABC News, laid-off BPI employees, and BPI itself – are communicating almost exclusively through lawyers or representatives, if they are willing to address the topic at all.
Even so, after revisiting the episode through court documents and media accounts, and by speaking to numerous legal and food industry experts, I became sympathetic to BPI’s story. In the end, the odds appear slim that BPI will win a legal judgment because of the pink slime episode. The legal hurdles it would need to clear are very high. But its ethical case is persuasive. In short, the company and its product — which has never been found to be unsafe, unhealthy, or to have caused food-borne illnesses — were victims of an insidious viral internet meme that wedged them between two powerful and opposing forces: the need to feed millions cheaply, and the growing desire of American consumers to know exactly what they’re eating.
The Origins of ‘Slime’
The key innovation behind LFTB is the use of a centrifuge to separate lean beef from fat. Historically, the small “trimmings” that fall from a beef carcass during the butchering process were discarded because it was too labor-intensive to separate small amounts of muscle meat from masses of unwanted fat. But Roth’s centrifuge technique did the trick. And when the lean and relatively inexpensive result of the process — LFTB — is added to conventional ground beef, both the overall price and fat content are reduced.
LFTB was already in production when a severe E. coli outbreak from undercooked hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants sickened more than 600 people and killed four children near Seattle in 1993. BPI products were not involved in the episode, but Roth saw in it an opportunity to make LFTB better. In 1994 he began working on a new method to reduce pathogens in LFTB by treating it with ammonia gas once it was removed from the centrifuge, believing that the process would help prevent outbreaks like the ones at the fast food chain. By 2001, both the FDA and the USDA had approved this new “pH Enhancement System,” and the company began marketing the new ammonia-treated product.