Opinion

There’s a new ground beef in town. Its proud father is working to make sure folks know it for what it is. Ground beef. The father? Eldon Roth.

As far as I know, Roth didn’t enter the “Twilight Zone” to find his latest progeny. But, a line from Rod Serling’s famous Zone intro describes the context in which it was conceived:

“It lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.”

Roth’s company BPI Inc. is the exclusive producer of the new ground beef. The company uses unique methods and equipment invented by Roth to produce it. It’s the younger sibling of Roth’s “lean finely textured beef” aka LFTB. The new ground beef is 95 percent lean. It can be used alone or mixed with other ground beef to reduce the fat content of homemade burgers, tacos, meat sauce, and school lunches.

If this news sounds familiar, you’ve been reading meat industry trade publications. Roth introduced the public to his new ground beef through the trade pubs in recent weeks. The story hasn’t hit the nightly network news yet, though.

Not wanting to wait on the talking heads, I checked in with Roth’s team to get the skinny on the new super lean ground beef — that’s my phrase, not BPI’s. Please don’t go acronym crazy with it.

Known as hamburger to people like you and me, the new ground beef earned its stripes on Nov. 15, 2018, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture granted a BPI request to label it as — wait for it — ground beef. Roth’s company filed the request six months earlier on May 20, 2018, according to Nick Roth, BPI’s director of engineering.

“We have been working over the last 30-plus years to better automate and innovate ground beef production. With all of the advancements we have made over the last several years, the result is that we now produce our lean ground beef via the most automated, innovative, and sustainable systems possible. All of these advancements combined have led to our new product that USDA has determined is ground beef,” Nick Roth said.

“However, we could not label the new product ground beef until USDA gave their approval. Accordingly, any product produced and sold prior to that approval would have been labeled as lean finely textured beef.

“This was an extensive review process and included reviews of multiple types of information, including third party conducted consumer panels, and also included on-site reviews of the production process and products by USDA staff members from Washington D.C.”

I think a key point there is the fact that there were third-party consumer panels. After all, it was consumer perception that smacked down Roth’s LFTB.

In 2001, his company got FDA and USDA approve for his “pH Enhancement System,” which involved treating the lean beef with ammonium hydroxide to eliminate pathogens. BPI began marketing LFTB that same year. The FDA had declared food grade ammonium hydroxide — essentially ammonia and water — as safe for consumption 27 years earlier.

The term lean finely textured beef was an accurate, be it cumbersome, way to describe the product. Roth brainstormed the production method and invented the necessary equipment. Part of his goal was to decrease the amount of waste from each cow used as human food. By taking so-called trim and spinning it while heating it a bit, Roth’s equipment separated the fat from the red meat.

The lean beef captured by the centrifugal force in Roth’s machines was put through grinding equipment, but its ultra-low fat content meant it had to be a ground finer than regular hamburger. The USDA’s rule book, aka federal law, barred BPI from labeling the product as “ground beef” because of its fine texture.

Yes, federal law specifically addresses the size of the grind. If it’s too small, it can’t be labeled as “ground beef” even when it’s 100 percent beef. Thus the LFTB term was born.

The small grind looked a little different from traditional ground beef. It was really pink because of the lower percentage of fat and didn’t hold its shape quite the same way more coarsely ground beef did.
Therein lies the foundation for a casually coined bit of vernacular in an internal USDA email. Just two words, nine letters total, sparked years of litigation.

The legal battle ended in the summer of 2017 when Disney, the parent company of ABC News, reached a multi-million dollar settlement with BPI. Had Disney not agreed to the undisclosed settlement details, the Mouse House stood to lose trillions if the jury decided to impose the maximum available damage award.

Sounding even more familiar? Yah — I’m talking about the “pink slime” debate that was long on public panic and short on science.

In the pink?
Roth’s LFTB had been embraced by federal departments including the USDA for school lunches and the DoD for military meals. The beef and the process used to make it also earned an endorsement from the consumer rights group Stop Foodborne Illness, which was founded by parents of children who were sickened and died in the 1993 E. coli outbreak traced to undercooked Jack in the Box hamburgers.

In 2007, officials at the USDA said BPI’s ammonia treatment was destroying E. coli “to an undetectable level.” That same year the International Association of Food Protection awarded BPI the Black Pearl Award, its highest honor, for the company’s commitment to food safety.

Major restaurant chains and foodservice operations such as institutional kitchens put the LFTB into the mix, literally, using it with traditional ground beef to make lower-fat burgers, tacos, chili, etc.

But then some consumers and ill-informed activists zeroed in on the pink term. Restaurant chains including McDonalds and Taco Bell stopped using LFTB. Some parents demanded schools stop using it, despite the endorsement from Stop Foodborne Illness.

In fairness to ABC News, fast food giants including McDonalds, Taco Bell and Burger King stopped using LFTB months before the network’s string of reports in the spring of 2012.

Enough about the past, though. There’s a timeline on our site that you can review by clicking here. If you want to read the Food Safety News coverage of the trial that wasn’t, search for BPI on our website.

Back to the present
When I chatted and emailed with the BPI team in preparation for this column, I asked if the whole pink controversy was what lead to Roth’s invention of the new equipment and methods used for the new ground beef. They said no.

It’s no secret that Roth doesn’t hold college degrees in engineering. But he is often described as an engineering savant. He’s apparently been thinking about machines since childhood. As he grew older, be started putting his thoughts down on paper, building prototypes, and retooling BPI’s facilities.

The younger Roth generation grew up amidst innovation. It was/is what Eldon Roth does. It’s what he’s been teaching them. They weren’t surprised their elder was working on the next generation of ground beef before the pink hit the fan.

“Virtually everything has changed from the process/product reviewed by USDA in the 1990s,” said BPI engineering director Nick Roth.

“The technical advancements cover the entire ground beef production process, but there are probably a few major areas for focus, starting with the actual grinding process. Previously, the grinding system we purchased resulted in a grind that was much finer texture than final, retail grinds for instance — therefore the terminology ‘finely textured’ beef. We worked for years to develop our own grinding systems that now result in our ground beef being typical of that produced through other ground beef systems.”

The younger Roth said BPI’s grinding isn’t the only thing that makes its new ground beef different from LFTB. He said significant changes have been made to the procedure used to separate lean beef from fat. He describes it as “more gentle than the grinding itself.”

BPI’s new process preserves the tenderness of the meat and allows for a consistent fat content of 5 percent, Nick Roth said.

The company no longer produces LFTB, and that brings me to another “Twilight Zone” moment. Rod Serling often talked about the distance between science and superstition. That’s what the whole pink saga seems like to me. The science has always said LFTB is beef. It also says the use of food grade ammonia hydroxide makes it less likely than some other beef products to be contaminated with pathogenic bacteria.

Superstition, however, says something very different. Superstition in the form of misinformed consumers, lame celebrity chefs, and under-informed activists tells tall tales. Here’s hoping BPI’s new ground beef isn’t burned at the stake.

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Managing Editor Coral Beach is a print journalist with more than 30 years experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, trade publications and freelance clients including the Kansas City Star, the Independence Examiner and Land Line Magazine. Before joining Food Safety News, Beach was a reporter for The Packer newspaper, an online and broadsheet trade publication covering the fresh produce industry in North America. During her time at The Packer, Beach specialized in food safety topics related to legislation, regulation, recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks. A Jayhawk by birth and education, Beach earned her bachelor’s of science in journalism from the University of Kansas. She enjoys playing trumpet in a community concert band and hanging our with her sister Sandy Beach at the beach house.