Last year, former Beef Products, Inc. employee Kit Foshee revealed to an audience in Washington D.C. that, without their knowledge, most of the hamburgers they eat contain BPI's ammoniated beef product – now commonly referred to as “pink slime.”
"I think you should know that. You should be able to make a choice, that the beef that you're eating is treated with Mr. Clean, to clean it up," he said (speaking at FIC's food whistleblower conference at American University).
More than a year later, it looks like consumers will get that option … to some extent. The USDA has agreed to approve beef industry requests to voluntarily label products containing "Lean Finely Textured Beef" (LFTB) – the industry's name for 'pink slime' and similar leftover beef trimmings treated with chemicals besides ammonia, like citric acid.
As Meatingplace points out, companies have always had the power to label products containing 'pink slime,' but voluntary statements on packaging must be verified by the agency. Thanks largely to the growing awareness of pink slime in recent weeks, this is the first time beef product makers have gone through the label approval process to inform consumers what goes into the ground beef they buy. Here's an interactive timeline showing Foshee's role in bringing the ammoniation process and other 'pink slime' concerns to light since 2008.
It will be up to each company that seeks labeling approval to determine the wording of their request. Possible examples could include: "Contains Lean Finely Textured Beef" or "Contains Finely Textured Beef" or "Contains Lean Beef Derived from Beef Trimmings."
The USDA did not say which companies made requests, but Tyson Foods and Cargill announced they’ve applied for LFTB labeling. Even BPI has endorsed the move (hoping labels will restore customer confidence in its product), but letting industry decide how transparent it wants to be really isn't enough.
Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), who previously demanded that USDA ban 'pink slime' completely from the school lunch program, has now also introduced a bill that would require LFTB labeling. Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Sam Farr (D-CA) have also sent a letter to Secretary Vilsack urging the agency to require labeling.
According to Foshee, BPI was less than transparent when they got 'pink slime' approved in the first place. At last year’s FIC conference, he recollected back to when he worked for the company, before he became a whistleblower:
Last time I was here in D.C. I got to go with the owners and management of BPI to go talk to USDA to go falsify and misrepresent the data to get ammoniating approved.
Read FIC's previous blog for more details on BPI's alleged misrepresentation of ammonia's E. coli reduction capabilities and other concerns.
If BPI wants the full confidence of ground beef eaters, then let's talk full disclosure beyond simply where 'pink slime' exists in the market. The company has made a clear effort to shut Kit Foshee up – an unfortunate but typical response to industry whistleblowers – but a business with real integrity shouldn't have anything to hide from the start.
Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.