Monday, April 23, 2012

Lean Fine Textured Beef

The anti-beef, anti-meat crowd has been having a field day with Lean Fine Textured Beef (LFTB). I had hoped that it would all go away while Tanya and I were in Prague but apparently not. It is quite amazing how much damage can be done to an industry by those with an agenda to harm it whenever and however possible.

Since I have been involved in the beef industry all my life, I thought a bit of background information on ground beef might be useful.

Over 40% of the value of a beef carcass is in about 25% of the high end cuts. These are the cuts along the longissimus dorsi or rib-eye muscle; Porterhouse, T-bones, and Rib steaks or variations there of. To achieve the desired tenderness and flavour a certain amount of intramuscular fat, called marbling, is required In general, the more marbling it contains, the better a cut of meat is; USDA Choice or Canada AAA has more marbling in the rib-eye than USDA Select or Canada AA.

Beef cattle fatten from the outside in and marbling is the last fat laid down. Steers and heifers (youthful, feedlot finished) going to slaughter carry a lot of exterior fat, though much less than in the past as genetic selection for faster marbling and better feeding regimes have greatly reduced the amount of exterior fat necessary to achieve the same desired level of marbling.

If you can remember back 30 years, that outside fat along with a lot of bone went onto the supermarket shelf with the cut of beef. I recall T-bone steaks with an inch of backfat. Consumers did not want either the fat or the bones. Eventually by the mid-80’s the industry got the message. Since that time, external fat was closely trimmed at the plant and at the time of processing into retail cuts, visible fat was again trimmed. Other than standing rib roasts and T-bone steaks all cuts were boneless.

About 50% of all beef in USA and Canada is consumed as ground beef. As much beef as possible is sold as various cuts (type and volume of cuts varies with season) and the rest is ground. According to Canadian regulations ground beef can be labeled as follows with the maximum fat contents specified (note that most supermarkets and meat stores have their own in-house standards which are actually lower in fat content than the allowed maximum):
Extra-lean: a maximum fat content of 10%
Lean: a maximum fat content of 17%
Medium: a maximum fat content of 23%
Regular: a maximum fat content of 30%

As you can imagine, grinding meat from youthful cattle “finished” to the degree of fatness required to meet USDA Choice or Canada AAA grades, results in some expensive and no matter how carefully trimmed, some higher fat ground beef. Cow beef which is leaner and cheaper is also ground and may be mixed with beef from feedlot finished animals. Lean trim from other cuts is also included in the grind.

Carefully and closely trimming cuts of beef results in “trim” made up of fat and lean meat. As much lean as possible is separated manually and included in ground beef. But it impossible to get it all. A couple of decades ago, a process was developed where the remaining high fat, low lean content trim was finely ground, heated to about 100°F and spun in a centrifuge to separate the lean from the fat, (much the same as a cream separator for anyone raised on a farm).

 The result is a product that may not look very appetizing in its raw form but is 90% to 95% lean beef. About 14 to 16 lbs (6 to 7 kg) per carcass of perfectly good beef are recovered that otherwise would go to the rendering plant. One of the pluses of this product is that when it is included in lean or extra lean ground beef and made into patties, you can actually eat the hamburgers. Otherwise lean or extra lean ground beef hamburgers are about as edible as rubber tire, only they smell better on the BBQ.

Now comes the issue of food safety. Going from live animal to meat requires a great deal of care to prevent contamination at every point along the chain because of course all living animals carry bacteria. Food safety is the number one priority of any meat processing plant and very stringent procedures (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point or HACCP) are in place to ensure so far as is humanly possible that the meat that leaves the plant is safe to eat. The plant has its own inspectors and they are backed up by government inspectors. And because no system is fool proof, every couple of weeks across North America, if you follow the websites, there is a recall of something that didn’t check out

Bacterial growth is a function of surface area. You can take a pound of sirloin steak home and eat it raw with a very large margin of safety because it has a small surface area: top, bottom, edges. Now think about ground beef. I have no idea the surface area of a pound of ground beef, though I expect someone figured it out. It is a huge number which is why recommendations are to cook ground beef thoroughly “until it is dead”.

Lean fine textured beef would have several times the surface area of ground beef so controlling bacteria was critical. Citric acid has been used. In 2001, I believe, Beef Products Inc. developed a process to control E. coli using ammonium hydroxide to raise the pH of the product. Ammonium hydroxide has been used in food production since 1974 and was approved by USDA and FDA for use with LFTB.

The American Meat Institute says that “USDA data show that the incidence of E. coli in fresh ground beef has been declining significantly over the past decade. The number of USDA ground beef samples testing positive for E. coli O157:H7 dropped 55 percent between 2000 and 2010”. And further that “all forms of lean finely textured beef are safe when produced in compliance with USDA regulations”.

Of course there is a system to totally control bacterial growth and make all foods safe to eat, which we have had for over 30 years. It is called irradiation. But you already know what the Luddites have to say about that.

Which brings up an interesting conundrum for someone who considers himself a progressive and a liberal. The Left believe in justice and equality of opportunity for all, that safety nets should ensure poor have money to buy food. The Right is dedicated to production of abundant, affordable, nutritious, wholesome food. One would think there might be some synergies here. But no. The right prefers to see the poor starve in the streets, while the Left’s food strategy seems to be:
1. prevent as much food production as possible
2. if food is produced it should be so expensive only Latte Liberals and Chardonnay Socialists can afford it.
3. if it is affordable, people should be too frightened to eat it.

From what I have gathered from reading the newsletters and comments on the internet these past several years:
The anti-women, anti-health care, anti-poor, anti-labour Right is trying to set social progress back some 200 years to save the earth.
The anti-food, anti-modern, anti-technolgy, anti-business Left is trying to set economic progress back some 200 years to save the earth.

“Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us” Calvin, from Calvin and Hobbes


  1. Great piece of been education! Thanks, big guy.

    And Calvin's wisdom, too. I just wish he weren't so right, so often.

  2. It all just makes me glad my husband hunts...we only eat venison...and use our kitchen aid attachment as our grinder. If I had to eat meat out of the grocery store I wound be a vegetarian.

  3. Thanks for this insight. I still do not feel completely comfortable buying commercially produced food. My wife and I try to buy form local farmers and farm markets as much as possible. The addition of steroids, antibiotics, and the necessity to 'treat' food products in order to make them safe to eat bothers me. The transportation of food products from third world countries is another concern. Maine has a large shrimp fishery but the local supermarket sells shrimp from Thailand, most vegetables are from Mexico and fish (frozen at sea) often smells like Clorox.

    I realize that with the world population doubling every forty years commercialization of food is necessary to supply the demand - but...

    My favorite cut is a nice fatty chuck roast cooked in the slow cooker.

    I plan to link to this post in my blog
    Thanks again
    the Ol'Buzzard

    1. Thanks for the link on your blog. Of course, you don't feel comfortable eating "commercial" food. Read enough Left wing food articles and you will stop eating entirely. When it comes to blowing smoke, fear mongering, half truths and outright lies, the Left has nothing to learn from the Right.


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