Beef industry searches for solutions after pink slime uproar
Reuters reports that there is little sign that the outcry is waning over lean, finely textured beef (LFTB) trimmings — or pink slime, as its rather popularly known. And that’s got the beef industry making adjustments.
Consumers continue to demand ground beef free of the ammonia hydroxide-treated filler even though there have been no reported cases of illness due to its consumption. The fallout includes:
- Leading beef producer Cargill Inc. has reverted to hand-carving meat out of trimmings cut from carcasses as a way to salvage some of the lean bits and avoid grinding more expensive cuts.
- Beef Products Inc., the leading U.S. producer of the beef filler, said last week that the media furor has led it to close three of its four plants and lay off 650 people. And this week the company said it would lay off another 86 at its headquarters.
- U.S. imports of beef have boomed, benefiting exporters in Australia, New Zealand and Uruguay, where cattle are grass-fed and tend to be less fat than their U.S. counterparts.
- Retail beef prices have risen just ahead of the U.S. grilling season while compressing margins for beef processors. The average retail price for ground beef was $3.02 a pound in March, up from $2.24 two years earlier, according to government data. (Though even with a bigger price tag, there's been little sign of consumers shunning ground beef, a food industry analyst told Reuters.)
It was predicted that retail prices would rise, but right now there’s no end in sight. The cost of top-grade leaner beef trimmings, which do not require as much processing to reduce the fat content, surged to historic highs this month, Reuters reports. Meanwhile, the price for trimmings that contain 50 percent fat - the raw material used to produce LFTB - plummeted to multi-year lows.
Finding enough beef trimmings with relatively little fat has become difficult, processors say. Reuters explains why:
Each beef carcass produces, on average, 100 pounds (45 kg) or more of trimmings, analysts said. These trimmings are used to make ground beef.
But not all trimmings are the same. In U.S.-raised cattle, much of these trimmings have a 50-50 fat-to-meat ratio. Such fattier trimmings are then mixed with other, leaner cuts in order to balance out the fat and create a hamburger that satisfies the American palette.
In the past, much of the beef processing industry relied on importing leaner beef trimmings, known as the 90s in industry parlance, from Australia and elsewhere.
The industry also relied on LFTB as a fix. It helped consume the domestic stockpile of the fattier trimmings, known as fresh 50s, and created a new supply of lean beef product that supplemented the fresh 90s.
And without LFTB, beef processors are "going back to how the industry produced hamburger 15, 20 years ago," said Jim Robb, director of the Livestock Marketing Information Center in Denver, Colorado. "They're going back to blending the 50s with the 90s."
Clearly, a market in turmoil.