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DES MOINES, Iowa
Some beef processors plan on labeling beef containing the meat product commonly known as "pink slime" in hope that such a designator will help restore consumer confidence.
The USDA says it has received applications for such labeling for the first time and plans on granting approval after it checks labels for accuracy. Some processors who provide the ammonia-treated trimmings plan to identify ground beef containing the product with a label that says: "Contains Lean Finely Textured Beef" or a similar statement.
"Several companies have chosen to voluntarily pursue a new claim on their product labels that will allow them to clarify the use of lean finely textured beef," spokesman Aaron Lavallee said in a statement. "USDA has received this type of application for the first time through the normal label approval process and the department has determined that such requests will be approved."
Federal regulators say the ammonia-treated filler, known in the industry as "lean, finely textured beef," meets food safety standards. But critics say the product could be unsafe and is an unappetizing example of industrialized food production.
Beef Products Inc., a Dakota Dunes, S.D., processor that makes the product said the USDA's decision to allow companies to include the labels "will be an important first step in restoring consumer confidence in their ground beef."
"We feel this development will allow more customers to provide options to consumers and pave the way for BPI's lean beef to re-establish its place in the market," company spokesman Rich Jochum said in a statement. Earlier this month, Beef Products suspended operations at plants in Texas, Kansas and Iowa amid public outcry.
Tyson Foods, which buys textured beef and uses it in some products it sells, said controversy surrounding the product has increased demand for beef without it.
"But we have recently seen an increased interest in purchasing ground beef containing LFTB as customers and consumers gain access to more accurate information," Tyson spokesman Gary Michelson said in an email.
A spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a trade group for farmers said the group does not believe a label is necessary, but it fully supports a company's right to choose which labels to use. Because the finely textured beef product is pure beef there are no requirements for labeling when it is mixed with other beef and sold as packaged ground beef.
Lean, finely textured beef is made by heating fatty bits of meat left over from other cuts to about 100 F and spinning it to remove most of the fat. The lean mix is then compressed into blocks for use in ground meat and treated with ammonium hydroxide gas to kill bacteria.
The product has been incorporated in beef for more than a decade. However it was first called "pink slime" by a federal microbiologist and the term has appeared in various media articles since 2009. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has railed against it, and it made headlines after McDonald's and other major chains discontinued their use last year.
More recently, the product has gained increased attention after a Houston woman started an online petition drive asking the USDA to keep it out of the hamburger served in school lunches. The USDA announced last month that starting in the fall it would give schools the option of choosing whether to buy beef containing it.