There is no escaping the reports, discussions, questions about “pink slime”— otherwise known as lean, finely textured beef (LFTB). Open up a newspaper, turn on the radio, chat with folks in the grocery store and the topic is front and center. There’s an endless flood of television coverage from Nightline to cable news to Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and Colbert Report.

When I heard the term “pink slime” my first reaction was— “What the heck is that?” Turns out it is essentially lean beef that’s caught up in fat trim. For example, from a 700-pound beef carcass you’ll get about 140 lbs. of trimmed fat, within that there is still 15 to 20 lbs. of lean beef that can’t easily be hand-trimmed out. So food scientists have figured out that you can melt the trimmings and centrifuge out the lean beef. “LFTB is more like baby food,” says Domenick Castaldo, biology instructor at Sauk Valley Community College, Dixon, Ill. “Paste more accurately describes LFTB than does ‘slime’.”  (He offers significantly more details about LFTB, which you can find here.)

My second reaction to “pink slime” was—“Ouch; that label is going to leave a mark.” And it has.

Admittedly, I also thought—“Thank heaven it doesn’t involve pork”-- and it doesn’t, at least not directly.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t wish this plight on any food or ag sector. My heart goes out to the beef folks. The U.S. pork industry knows all too well what it’s like to have a damaging and inaccurate label associated with its product. To be clear, I almost never refer to the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus as “swine flu”, so if I do use that reference you know I mean business. I have to say, I’m surprised to see food and agriculture outlets referring to “pink slime.” We would all do well to stop using that reference, and call it LFTB instead.

In the case of H1N1 and LFTB the media chose the more headline-grabbing name; in each case science offered a more thorough view of reality; in each case, so far with LFTB, the marketplace drove the reaction. In the H1N1 case, while the fervor was quite quickly squelched in the domestic market, U.S. pork paid the price in the export market as countries closed their borders, some for an extended time. Also, with influenza being a respiratory virus, there’s no connection to meat, so that helped.

With LFTB it’s obviously a whole other story; you can’t get much more direct than mixing it into a food product. Now, anyone who knows anything about meat science or food science or about making products like sausage, or even meatloaf for that matter, understands there are reasons to incorporate binders like LFTB to enhance product performance. But, the thing is, 99 percent of Americans don’t readily have that kind of understanding. 

Shoot, LFTB is nothing-- blood sausage or head cheese anyone?

Still, this is serious for the food and ag sector because seeds of mistrust are already sprouting in people’s minds. Whether it involves the use of antibiotics, animal housing practices, the application of pesticides or fertilizer in production practices, this latest episode only fuels the thoughts of “look at what big ag and big food is doing to us.”

Right—as if there is no science behind LFTB; as if there are no inspections or testing standards associated with the product. As if one day some guy said, “You know what we should do with this pile of trimmings and fat; we should grind it up and throw it into the lean ground beef.”

There has been significant fallout from LFTB and it has yet to play out. Beef packers and processors have been bleeding red ink since November due to tight cattle supplies and record prices. This week AFA Foods, a major U.S. beef grinder filed for bankruptcy, citing the LFTB debacle as the final straw. This follows BPI closing three grinding operations the week before.

Supplies of beef trimmings are backing up and prices are falling. Ground beef sales have softened and the only thing that’s keeping those prices from crashing is the already tight product supply.

But the fallout is not exclusive to beef. Pork trimmings are starting to pay the price as well since some of these products are interchangeable in processed meats such as hot dogs. In recent weeks, pork packer margins have posted losses, and trim values influence primal-cut values, which influence carcass values.

Price pressure on beef will create price pressures elsewhere in the meat case. With consumers stretched thin financially and weary about the economy, they’ll turn to what costs least.

So, where is this headed? Good question, this one could have a slow burn.  

Three state governors and USDA officials inspected an LFTB plant to proclaim the product safe and authentic. They even had a catchy slogan printed on a T-shirt-- “Dude: It’s beef.” Really; that’s it? I can see that shirt being popular on college campuses, but I cannot see the light-hearted attempt sitting well with moms looking to feed ground beef to their kids. Nor are they likely to be impressed by three middle-aged governors, all male, saying—“Yep, everything is okay here.” What is the average American’s confidence level of the average politician these days?

I know there are a lot more serious actions underway to address this issue. The point is, this is going to be a marathon repair mission-- most directly for ground beef, but also for the meat complex and even longer term for the food and agriculture sector.

And you thought “swine flu” was bad.