It was a little over a year ago that the issue of “pink slime” exploded into the national consciousness. One of the U.S. beef industry’s shining success stories in carcass utilization quickly became a huge industry black eye in terms of consumer perception following a relentless social media attack regarding lean finely textured beef (LFTB).

The furor was precipitated by a series of sensational reports by ABC News, which ultimately drew a defamation lawsuit brought by BPI, the dominant maker of LFTB. In the interim, a boycott of LFTB by major retailers forced the closure of three of four BPI processing plants and the layoff of 700 workers.

But the tentacles of that media furor reached farther than that. When Cargill closed its Plainview, TX, processing plant in January 2013, the culprit most cited was drought-induced cattle liquidation that had exacerbated the effects of an existing overcapacity in the packing business. But in an interview with FoodNavigator-USA in early April, Michael Martin, Cargill director of communications, said a contributing factor to the plant idling that laid off 2,000 workers was the reduced production of LFTB at the plant.

Most industry watchers predict that LFTB will make a recovery in time. After all, how can a hungry planet turn its nose up at the recovery of up to 15 lbs. of lean beef per carcass that the LFTB process allows?

Following the media fury, a lot of folks opined that the industry’s failing had been a lack of transparency about the process. However, that was never the intent, says Russell Cross, head of Texas A&M University’s Animal Science Department. What changed was the consumer, he says.

As head of USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) from 1992-1994, Cross approved the use of LFTB in 1993. That approval defined LFTB as meat, which allowed its use in ground beef without being labeled, he says. It was in 2001, after Cross had left FSIS, that the use of ammonium hydroxide in BPI’s production process was approved as a pH control agent.

Cross says LFTB was, and still is, a process based on good science. “I’m not sure how much more BPI could have done back then; the consumer wasn’t calling for the type of transparency that today’s consumer is. The ball just moved on them.”

James Dickson, Iowa State University professor of meat science, concurs. “I’m not sure what else BPI could have done, and that’s onething that has puzzled a lot of folks. BPI was very open for a food company as far as visitors and plant tours. They were much more open than most food companies in general, and an awful lot of meat companies, in terms of what they were doing. It doesn’t seem that they were trying to conceal that from the public.

“Eldon Roth (BPI CEO) is pretty proud of his operation and he wanted people to see it. I can tell you that as an academic trying to take students on plant tours, there aren’t many places that will let you in. BPI didn’t quite have an open-door, take-all-comers approach, but it was pretty close. Just about anybody who asked for a tour or visit was let in,” Dickson says.