USDA has agreed to approve requests by ground beef product makers to voluntarily label their products that contain lean finely textured beef (LFTB) or similar products that have been the focus of media and social media reporting that has frightened consumers.
“Several companies have chosen to voluntarily pursue a new claim on their product labels that will allow them to clarify the use of Lean Finely Textured Beef. USDA has received this type of application for the first time through the normal label approval process and the department has determined that such requests will be approved,” USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee told Meatingplace. “By exercising this existing option, these companies can continue to provide a lean, safe and nutritious product to an informed customer base.”
Labeling the presence of finely textured beef products has been an option for industry since it began being incorporated into ground beef products more than a decade ago and does not require a change in USDA regulations. However, a voluntary statement on a label indicating that ground beef product does or does not contain the product is considered a claim. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service is required to verify the accuracy of all label claims prior to their use by industry.
Pressure was mounting
The beef industry and USDA have been under increasing pressure to label products that contain finely textured beef.
On Friday, Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) introduced The Requiring Easy and Accurate Labeling of Beef Act (REAL Beef Act) that would require any beef containing "finely textured ground beef" to have a label at the final point of sale. The bill has ten co-sponsors.
Also on Friday, Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Sam Farr (D-Calif.) made public a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging the agency to require products with LFTB to be labeled.
Over the past week, the media and social media storm that first pointed at Beef Products Inc.’s ammonium hydroxide pathogen treatment, then on the raw materials used to make LFTB, has over the past week landed on labeling.
At a news conference last Thursday, ABC News Senior National Correspondent Jim Avila defended the network’s coverage of the issue, saying ABC had never reported that the product was unsafe, but focused on the fact that ground beef products were not labeled to indicate the presence of LFTB.
Ground beef is a single-ingredient product. An exasperated BPI co-founder Regina Roth exclaimed in an earlier video that LFTB was simply beef and therefore how else should it be labeled?
Still, if the goal is to get the product back on shelves so that consumers can choose it, labeling might be part of the solution.
“If the issue of concern is truth in labeling, then USDA should allow LFTB to be labeled on ground beef packages. Then, consumers can make a choice,” Kansas State University Regent’s Distinguished Professor of Food Safety and Security Jim Marsden wrote in a blog on Meatingplace.
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."
Cargill, which produces what it calls "finely textured beef" is looking at the possibility of voluntarily labeling its products that contain the input as one option, spokesman Mike Martin told Meatingplace.
(For related stories, go to the Meatingplace LFTB News Center.)