Ten years and 1,200 miles separate Beef Products Inc.’s headquarters in Dakota Dunes, S.D., and Lorton, Va., where Gerald Zirnstein now resides, unemployed and dogged by the internal memo he wrote in 2002 dubbing BPI’s product “pink slime.” But the Kansas native and former USDA employee remains resolute that lean finely textured beef (LFTB) is an “additive” and needs to be labeled as such.
“There’s nothing simple about that topic, because you’re mixing in food science, food safety, and economics,” Zirnstein told Meatingplace. “It’s about food safety, food quality, food labeling and economics.”
His comments come on the heels of USDA’s announcement Monday that the agency has agreed to approve requests by ground beef product makers to voluntarily label their products that contain LFTB or similar products.
Meatingplace connected with the man who’s been reluctantly at the center of this controversy to examine the labeling proposal and its potential impact on the industry.
Meatingplace: Have you ever in your career seen anything like this?
ZIRNSTEIN: No, and I don’t want to see it again. It screwed up my career at FSIS. I was working as a government official. I didn’t want to be quoted. They harassed me at FSIS. I left. Six months later I was gone. Then I went to work for a consulting firm, and that was a bad choice … it didn’t work out. I jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. I got slowly dragged into it over the years.
Meatingplace: Regarding labeling, it’s beef pure and simple. Do you disagree?
ZIRNSTEIN: It’s real crappy beef. If you want to buy low-quality beef, inform the people what it is and sell it. If you can sell it fine … Good capitalism is based on knowledge of what you’re buying. By definition, ground beef and hamburger are not supposed to have additives. So that means [LFTB] is a beef-patty mix, and beef-patty mix needs to be defined. There’s nothing wrong with beef-patty mix, as long as you label it.
Meatingplace: Should the USDA make labeling of this product mandatory?
ZIRNSTEIN: Yeah, anything questionable … . If it’s labeled and somebody wants to get the information on the product and they want to risk going in and buying it, … That’s pure capitalism, baby. When you don’t label things properly, it’s not capitalism. It’s fraud. … This issue really [angered] a lot of people, because you’re not gonna tell me to eat that without telling me what’s in the food. … The main thing is just not knowing what you’re buying. That’s my bottom line.
Meatingplace: Should LFTB be on the market at all?
ZIRNSTEIN: Yeah. It’s a lower-quality product. It’s edible, but it’s lower quality. … It’s higher in rancidity. It’s higher in connective tissue. … This was a really good what-the-[expletive] moment for the meat industry. … If we don’t label this properly, maybe we should think about changing the marketing on that, because when it’s found out it might blow up into a gigantic tornado like this thing did.
(For more information on the LFTB controversy, see Meatingplace’s LFTB News Center.)