The overwrought nature of ABC’s work notwithstanding, the public should be thankful for the scrutiny of BPI. While the pro-LFTB slogan, “Dude, it’s beef,” may be true in a technical way, it’s a far cry from what most consumers expect when they buy “100% ground beef,” and the recent furor has as much to do with transparency as safety. LFTB and the ammonia used to treat it are not labeled because the FDA does not consider them to be additives or ingredients, but rather “processing aids,” which are “substances that have no technical or functional effect in a finished food but may be present in that food by having been used as ingredients of another food in which they had a technical effect.”

But LFTB is markedly different from raw ground beef. While most news reports have described the ammonia that BPI uses as a “puff” or “small amount,” for instance, few journalists have bothered to ask for specifics. When Food Safety News’s Helena Bottemiller dug a little deeper, she discovered that:

To raise the pH of the product high enough to kill bacteria, BPI says it takes beef from 5.7 or so, where it naturally is, to 8.5. (For those rusty on their chemistry, that’s like going from the slight acidity of black coffee to the alkalinity of baking soda).

When it leaves the facility in a large frozen brick it likely drops closer to pH 7.5, according to the company, which leaves the product about 100 times more alkaline than before it was treated.

While ABC News’s series on “pink slime” may have gone overboard, that acidic fact, and the The New York Times’s 2009 revelations about BPI’s spotty safety record, are more than enough to warrant further investigation—and enough to make the company’s charges of defamation against the network seem like another SLAPP suit designed to prevent journalists and the public from asking important questions.

 

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.