What is in this article?:
- Unfounded consumer backlash to lean finely textured beef threatens a key cog in industry efficiency.
- Consumer reaction to an ABC News report about LFTB on March 7 was so loud and stunningly swift that three of the nation’s largest grocers decided to quit offering ground beef containing LFTB.
LFTB in a nutshell
Relatively few outside the meat business knew much about LFTB until the recent media storm surrounding it, even though it was first approved by USDA in 1993.
According to Russell Cross, a world-renowned meat scientist and head of Texas A&M University’s Department of Animal Science, every fed cattle carcass produces the equivalent of 12-15 lbs. of LFTB. Cross approved the LFTB process while serving as administrator of the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service in 1993.
Since then, and before the consumer protest, Woerner says LFTB has been used in approximately 70-80% of U.S. ground beef.
LFTB is beef, just as milk is milk, whether it comes from a cow milked by hand or a machine. In this case, the stroke of genius Woerner referred to was the development of new technology that allowed separating lean from fat mechanically so that more lean beef could be harvested from each carcass. The result is LFTB, which is 96-98% lean beef.
According to Woerner, the inclusion rate of LFTB in ground beef has hovered around 10%, with a range of 5% to 20%. Based on sensory research, he says there is no negative impact on palatability at the different inclusion rates.
As U.S. consumers began eating more ground beef – more than 50% of domestic beef consumption is by way of ground beef – they also began asking for leaner grinds. You can take the choicest cuts from a carcass, grind them and have leaner burger, but it is prohibitively expensive. Or, you can do what meat processors have done for decades – mix leaner beef trimmings with fattier ones in order to create ground beef that is leaner overall.
Simplistically, every fed cattle carcass produces a variety of lean trimmings. Woerner explains these trimmings go three different market directions: 90% lean, 75% lean and 50% lean. The most pervasive trim component of each carcass is less than 50% lean, what we’ll call sub-50% for purposes here.
Until LFTB came along, there wasn’t a market for sub-50% trim other than rendering. With the advent of LFTB, processors could market sub-50% trim to Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), the nation’s primary LFTB processor, or a handful of others. These processors separate the lean from the fat in the trim, producing the ultra-lean LFTB, which can be added back to fattier trim to create leaner grinds of hamburger more cost-effectively.
Besides cost effectiveness and the ability to meet consumer demand without having to import more lean trim, many would say LFTB’s primary advantage is its safety. Though different processors employ different means, the BPI process includes blasting a puff of ammonium hydroxide on the beef. Ammonium hydroxide is approved by the FDA for use in a host of food industry practices. When used with LFTB, it’s an effective post-harvest intervention against bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella.
If LFTB is cast into history’s dustbin, once again there will be no market for sub-50% trimmings, at least currently. It will go to rendering.
“We try to harvest every single aspect of the animal during the process… The fact that we are going through this exercise of removing it (LFTB) from the market has caused the price of lean trimmings to go up over 15%. That’s going to cause the price of ground beef to go up, and we all know who is going to pay for that – the consumer,” Cross says.
At the same time, the value of the beef carcass decreases.
BPI estimates their LFTB production accounts for about $15/head of fed cattle; about $400 million annually. And, AMI estimates it would take as many as 1.5 million head more cattle to replace the lean void left if LFTB disappeared.