Looking For Good Answers To Hard Questions…

Those of you that have been following Feed Yard Foodie for a while know that I rarely use a “guest blogger”.  In fact, over the last 11 months of blogging, I have only used one.  Dr. Mike Apley of Kansas State University helped us to look at the issue of antibiotic use in cattle relative to the antibiotic resistance challenge when my daughter Karyn had pneumonia last December.

Today I am going to double the number of “guest bloggers” with a Q and A interview with Dr. Russell Cross.  Just as with the antibiotic issue, I feel that the complexity of the Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) discussion necessitates bringing in a specialist.  While I have read about the process of LFTB, Dr. Cross has lived the process and brings great experience to this discussion.

This is a picture of little pieces of Lean Finely Textured Beef.

Many thanks to Dr. Cross for sharing his knowledge with us!

Currently, Dr. Cross is a professor at Texas A & M University but he served as the Administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service in the early 1990’s at the time that LFTB was approved.  As administrator, Dr. Cross was personally responsible for ensuring that this process was studied in depth to ensure that it made safe and healthy food.  Dr. Cross is not just a scientist; he is a father, a grandfather and a caring individual who has dedicated his life to researching meat and food safety.  For an extensive biography on Dr. Cross, please click here: Dr. Cross’s Biography…

Q and A:

Anne: The words “pink slime” have recently been in the news. Can you please offer your thoughts on the term?

Dr. Cross: Well it’s ridiculous really. But what’s being inaccurately referred to as “pink slime” is actually “lean finely textured beef.” It’s a category of beef products that uses special equipment to separate the lean meat from the fat in the trimmings created when steaks and roasts are cut. This process yields another 10-12 pounds of lean, nutritious beef from every beef animal and it can be added to other ground beef products.

Anne: Why are we suddenly hearing about this now?

Dr. Cross: Folks today are rightfully interested in where their food comes from and what’s in it, but unfortunately, a few people in the public eye have grossly dramatized the process and tried to make it into something it’s not.

For almost two decades, lean finely textured beef has been an acceptable ingredient in ground beef and the ground beef purchased by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) for distribution through federal food and nutrition assistance programs, which includes the national school lunch program. In my opinion, this is a great way to make sure as many people as possible have access to high-quality lean protein.

Anne: Can you explain the ammonia process that is used to make lean finely textured beef and why it is important?

Dr. Cross: Though the use of ammonia to make beef safer may sound strange, this process has been sensationalized and falsely communicated by the media—household cleaner is not used to make this product. The process is completely safe. The lean finely textured beef that has been separated from the fat receives a small puff of ammonium hydroxide gas (essentially ammonia and water), which slightly raises the pH level of the product, thereby destroying any bad bacteria. Ammonium hydroxide is a naturally occurring compound found in many foods, our own bodies and the environment. It is used to kill bacteria on many fresh foods, including fruits and vegetables, baked goods and even beer. The ammonia dissipates quickly so that there is no trace of ammonia left in the final product. This process has been used since 1974, when the Food and Drug Administration declared it GRAS or Generally Recognized as Safe, the highest safety attribution the agency can assign.

Anne: The media have suggested the approval of lean beef trimmings was rushed due to a personal agenda; do you think that was the case?

Dr. Cross: As Administrator of USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) in the early 90s, I and my staff evaluated numerous research projects before approving lean finely textured beef as a safe source of high-quality protein. No single person or agenda influenced the process, which took years…it wasn’t a decision that was made overnight. In the end, I actually was the one who approved lean finely textured beef as safe. I wasn’t ordered to do it; I did it because it was the right thing to do and it was scientifically proven safe. I cannot recall any objections from my fellow FSIS staff. In fact, I don’t recall the decision being controversial internally at all.

Anne: Given your experience, do you think we can we trust the FSIS process?

Dr. Cross: The FSIS safety review process was and is an in-depth, science-based process that spans years, many research projects and involves many experts across all levels of the agency—and in this case, the process proved lean beef trimmings are safe. This product has been safely used for many years.

I’ve visited the companies that produce lean finely textured beef and I can tell you that this valuable ingredient comes from some of the most high-tech, efficient and cleanest processing plants in our industry.

Anne: Why is this product so important?

Dr. Cross: Lean finely textured beef helps us meet consumer demand for safe, affordable and nutritious food. All beef is a good or excellent source of 10 essential nutrients including protein, iron, zinc and B-vitamins. I believe we have a responsibility to raise as much safe and nutritious protein with as few natural resources as possible and to make it available to as many people as possible.

Anne: Should lean beef trimmings be allowed in school lunch programs? 

Dr. Cross: There is no reason NOT to have it in the school lunch program—it is a safe, quality and nutritious ingredient and meets government regulations for safety. Our kids deserve access to high-quality lean protein like this, and sometimes for the kids served by the school lunch program, that meal is the only chance they get to fill their stomachs with healthy food.

Anne: Would you feed this to your family? Why do you feel good about it as a consumer?

Dr. Cross:  Listen, I enjoy ground beef. Spaghetti, tacos…but I have to admit the best is a juicy burger. I was part of approving lean finely textured beef for the food supply, I have total confidence in its safety and I continue to enjoy the same great ground beef meals I always have knowing this ingredient is an important part of making those meals I love.

Click here to watch a brief video with Dr. Cross addressing these same issues:


 I would very much like to thank Dr. Cross for taking the time to share with us.  I will conclude my series on hamburger next week.  If anyone has any additional thoughts or questions that you would like for me to address next week, please let me know via the Ask Me section at the top of the home page or write it in the comment section of this post.  If you are looking for additional information on LFTB please consult the following links:

Additional resources:


Meat MythCrusher Video on “Pink Slime”

International Food Information Council Fact Sheet on Ammonia Hydroxide in Food

Questions and Answers on “Pink Slime”

In the meantime, I will be preparing my favorite basketball player for her last tournament of the year with hamburgers grilled outdoors in the wonderful spring weather that has settled in Nebraska!


Filed under General, Nutrition (cattle and human)

7 responses to “Looking For Good Answers To Hard Questions…

  1. Bill

    Geezz. Based on the sensationalism, you’d think beef was being dropped into large vats of household ammonia. Actually, it is if you watch Chef Jamie Oliver (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wshlnRWnf30). He apparently is trashing the beef industry to make a buck. That’s actually very old school American. What I would like to know Dr. Cross is simple. How different is a puff of food grade ammonia used on food against any type of food swimming in gallons of household cleaning product? I think that need elaboration, but I’m on board with your thoughts overall.

    In reaction, “Schools getting choice on beef: Pink slime or no?” (http://xfinity.comcast.net/articles/news-health/20120314/US.Food.Pink.Slime.Debate/?cid=hero_media), Marion Nestle, who has apparently never heard of the process and states, “It sounds disgusting.” She is an ‘expert,’ and her comment sounds like she thoroughly researched the topic. According to you, Dr. Cross, the ammonia process is used with multiple types of foods in many different food processing industries. Apparently using ammonia on strawberries is O.K. It is just not O.K. on meat.

    Bettina Siegal’s blog, “The Lunch Tray” http://www.thelunchtray.com/ and her effort to get school children to eat ‘wholesome’ food ignores the fact that bacteria and the removal of bacteria is a normal part of our food production and supply process. Apparently, it is OK if little Timmy knells over dead as long as he had a nutritious, wholesome cheeseburger prior to ingesting e. Coli. ‘Wholesome’ being the key rallying word for the reactionaries.

    Siegal and others like here have been effective in pressuring parents/media to pressure school boards to pressure the USDA. The USDA yielded to concerns over a process deemed safe after years of research. Why does the USDA question itself? I thought big government solves all social ills, with the exception of course of the USDA.

    Here is another article that focuses on what I think the bigger picture. Extremists, in this case the vegetarian movement, are seeing an opportunity to push their agenda and cripple the U.S. Beef industry. The article, “Eating All Red Meat Increases Death and More Reasons to Never Eat Meat” (http://xfinity.comcast.net/articles/news-health/20120314/031412.eatingallreadmeatincreasesdeath.dailybeast/?cid=hero_media&fb_source=message) has no author associated with the link. It dumbs down the issues so 3rd grade Internet users can ‘understand’ it.

    Basically, I know you don’t get ‘Mad Cow’ eating steak cut from an actual ‘Mad Cow.’ You get ‘Mad Cow’ from eating the brains of a ‘Mad Cow.’ Americans, to my knowledge, don’t eat cow brains. Plus, the article ignores the fact that ammonia is a defense against Salmonella and e.Coli. Then, there are the stereotypes.

    Speaking as a marketing and advertising guy, what I’m seeing is an assault on the (evil and corporate complicit) USDA; the ‘inhumane’ U.S. Beef Industry and the nation’s food supply itself. …And I don’t even work in the Beef Industry. Am I wrong in this assumption?

  2. Hi Bill,

    Interesting wording on the “swimming” in ammonia question. We certainly spent a lot of hours swimming in a chlorinated pool! In fact, the pool had chlorine in it to reduce the bacteria in the water—a commonality with the use of ammonia hydroxide gas misted on food. Both of them change the pH to reduce the potentially dangerous bacteria–right? You spent more hours as a lifeguard checking the pH of the water than I did!

    I completely understand the use of ammonia to make beef safer may sound strange or even concerning, but it’s important to remember that we are not talking about household cleaner. Hydrolyzed ammonia is a water and ammonia gas mixture that forms a “mist” that is used to kill potentially harmful bacteria in ground beef products. It is also used to kill bacteria on many fresh foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables, baked goods and even beer. As Dr. Cross mentioned, ammonia hydroxide is considered GRAS b/c it is naturally occurring in foods and raises the pH which kills the bacteria that might make people sick. This fact sheet from the International Food Information Council sheds more light on the use of ammonium hydroxide in food processing. http://www.foodinsight.org/Resources/Detail.aspx?topic=Questions_and_Answers_about_Ammonium_Hydroxide_Use_in_Food_Production

    As far as the other questions/comments, I believe that beef is a healthy and important part of my diet. I also believe that all of us should look to reputable sources to make nutritional decisions. At times the slant in the media tends to be toward “sensationalism” instead of factual information. That makes researching things more complicated. The good thing is that technology allows us to directly connect with farmers for accurate information on food sources. It takes a little bit more effort than watching the nightly news, but I believe that it is worth the effort. You might take a look at http://www.explorebeef.org as it also is loaded with good information.

    Thanks for commenting and being interested in the discussion.

  3. Rex

    How did you find Dr. Cross?
    How come the Marion Nestle who teaches nutrition at NYU does not know about food safety techniques…except of course that the lack of synthetic chemicals used in production is essential?
    Did Dr. Cross ever meet the “whistleblowers”. I know that at least one was still a student at UNL (can they recall his diploma?) in the 1990’s.

    • Hi Rex,

      When the issue of LFTB became headline news last week I had a couple of readers send me questions on the process. So, I went to work trying to do “my homework” to be able to give an accurate portrayal of both the product and the process by which it is made. Dr. Cross was present at the BIFSCo Annual Summit (Beef Industry Safety Council) that was also last week. I was able to contact him through people that I know from my volunteer work with Beef Quality Assurance. I am so very thankful that he was willing to give his time and share his knowledge with us.

      As for your other questions, I am afraid that I do not know the answers. I found Dr. Cross’s comment about the unity of the FSIS staff toward approving the process as safe particularly interesting given that there are two gentlemen claiming that their disagreement with the process caused them to leave their positions at the same regulatory agency.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I will be finishing up this series with Tuesday’s post.

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