Two years after the “pink slime” media storm sent retailers and manufacturers running and forced suppliers to significantly scale back production of its lean ground beef product known as finely textured beef, Cargill says its FTB volumes have climbed back to 60% of pre-2012 levels.
“While Cargill’s FTB volume is growing, it is growing slowly,” Michael Martin, Cargill’s director of communications, told FoodNavigator-USA. “Our FTB business is at about 60% of capacity right now. While we have more customers (about 400) that purchase FTB or ground beef than we did in 2012, the number includes many smaller volume customers than prior to March 2012.”
The decision by leading food manufacturers, retailers and foodservice firms to drop FTB in 2012 as the unsavory “pink slime” moniker gained momentum forced the nation's largest manufacturer, Beef Products Inc. (BPI), to shut down three of its plants and put more than 700 people out of work in 2013.
It also resulted in “about 80% of Cargill’s FTB business disappearing,” Martin claimed, adding that it was a contributing factor in the decision to idle the company’s Plainview, TX, beef processing plant on Feb. 1, 2013, which resulted in the loss of more than 2,000 jobs. He also cited the pink slime frenzy as the primary reason Cargill closed a smaller FTB facility in the Los Angeles area, which displaced a few dozen employees.
Ground beef prices hit record levels; FTB much cheaper to produce
But in the time since, rising grain costs and drought conditions in the western US have led to significant price increases for ground beef. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average price of ground beef in the US jumped 12% in the past year alone to reach $3.884 per pound, the highest ever recorded.
FTB—typically used to increase the amount of lean protein in ground beef—is produced with actual beef, though the costs associated are much lower than with using real beef cuts.
Asked if Cargill thought FTB would eventually return to pre-2012 volumes, particularly given the jump in ground beef prices, Martin replied, “We don’t speculate.”
Still, the supplier has taken steps to reassure consumers in the wake of the “misleading, inflammatory and inaccurate information” surrounding FTB by creating groundbeefanswers.com, a website where consumers can get information and ask questions about FTB.
The site contains videos demonstrating how FTB is produced; and illustrates the role of FTB in animal welfare (by maximizing the amount of lean beef harvested from each animal, Martin claims), sustainability (reducing the need for more resources including more cattle, more water, more feed, more pastureland, etc.) and helping to keep ground beef more affordable.
“The last point is particularly relevant to consumers at a time when beef prices are at, or near, all-time highs due to the beef cattle herd being depleted from recent drought conditions,” Martin said. “The herd is at the lowest number since 1951.”
Cargill also conducted a survey of 3,000 consumers who purchase ground beef, through which the supplier learned that consumers prefer to know what’s in their food.
“Our consumer research learnings told us once people understand what FTB is and how it is made, they have no issue with the product or the process used to produce it,” he said. “We did learn that consumers would prefer to have ground beef containing FTB—even though the latter is beef—labeled. That learning evolved into our November 2013 announcement to voluntarily label Cargill-branded, fresh, ground beef we produce at our beef processing plants.” (See related story here.)