Despite the widely publicized consumer outcry this spring over the use of lean finely textured beef — dubbed “pink slime” by a former U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist — the category seems largely unaffected. Beef volume sales, including ground beef, have been in decline, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the LFTB controversy, industry experts say. The discussion has, however, brought to light that consumers are looking for more information about what’s in their food.
News coverage and consumer social media response exploded after ABC News interviewed former USDA scientist Gerald Zirnstein about LFTB trimmings last spring. Zirnstein said that over 70% of supermarket ground beef included filler that he called “pink slime,” and that LFTB was processed and extracted using heat, a centrifuge and ammonia to kill the bacteria.
“While the USDA and food industry experts agree that lean finely textured beef is safe and wholesome, recent news stories have caused considerable consumer concern about this product,” Safeway said in a statement in March. “Safeway will no longer purchase ground beef containing lean finely textured beef.”
Chains that had not offered the filler before the controversy quickly communicated this to their customers. Other chains, like Hy-Vee , continued to offer ground beef with LFTB, but immediately started to label which offerings might contain it.
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Although a study in April by the casual dining restaurant Red Robin Gourmet Burgers reported that almost a quarter of restaurant and supermarket customers said they were avoiding or cutting down on ground beef because of the controversy, there doesn’t seem to be evidence of any unexpected change in ground beef volume that suggests this avoidance or a lasting impact on consumer choices.
“The reality was we really didn’t see in the supermarket data sales that ground beef was suffering,” said Sherry Frey, vice president of account services at the Nielsen Perishables Group. “We saw the controversy surface about mid-March and through March and April we didn’t see any notable decline.”
In the 52 weeks ending Aug. 25, ground beef volume has declined 3.2% compared to last year, but this decline is actually less than the total beef category’s decline of 4.8%, Frey said. This is mostly due to retailer prices being higher than in the past because of availability and feed prices.
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One might think that more customers would be buying beef ground in-store after the outcry over the beef filler, but retailers told SN this isn’t the case.
Dorothy Lane Market, a retailer that only sells its own in-store grind, hasn’t seen any change in sales because of the controversy, according to Jack Gridley, meat and seafood director. But, the LFTB discussion did seem to rally customers around the retailer.
“We heard about it in-store and most of the comments we heard were, ‘We knew you wouldn’t be using that sort of thing, and that’s why we shop here,’” said Gridley.
Kurt Johnson, meat supervisor of Hy-Vee’s Southeast Region, also hasn’t seen the LFTB media coverage make a difference in ground beef sales — including house ground, chubs that may contain lean finely textured beef and ground beef in atmospheric packaging.
“Our ground beef sales didn’t skip a beat one way or another, and they’ve picked up, but they haven’t picked up for any other reason than it’s a more affordable option for a lot of people right now,” said Johnson.
The price of meat has been a concern nationwide [see Fresh Food Prices Low Now, Set to Rise in 2013 ]. In the past six months, the Nielsen Perishables Group has been seeing more shoppers buying chicken breast because of beef category prices, Frey said.
A Desire for Transparency
Whether it be higher retail prices or health concerns, it’s clear that retailers don’t see the LFTB controversy as the culprit behind any sales declines.
At Publix  — a retailer that never offered ground beef products with LFTB — the controversy did not impact ground beef sales, according to spokesperson Maria Brous.
“Overall, beef pricing has increased over the past year due to commodities pricing. Our customers have followed the national average of sales trending down due to pricing,” she said.
Sales also did not change at Hy-Vee after the retailer added labels to ground beef products that may contain LFTB. Johnson said that once customers found out that the filler being called “pink slime” was actually beef, safe for eating, and part of ground beef for over 20 years, the controversy became a “non-issue.”
“People just want to know what’s in their product,” said Johnson.
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Indeed, many industry sources have said the LFTB discussion has highlighted shoppers’ desire for transparency.
“I think the lean finely texture beef issue brought to everybody’s attention how important it is to be transparent with your consumer,” said Andrew Gunther, program director at Animal Welfare Approved, a program that connects retailers to protein farmers that raise local, sustainable and grass-fed products. “The issue itself was more about what the consumer didn’t know than anything else.”
In March, Fresh & Easy  hosted a “Pink Slime Swap Meat” where consumers could trade in their ground beef containing LFTB from other retailers in exchange for Fresh & Easy’s ground beef that hadn’t ever contained the filler.
“We had an incredible reception from customers to the ‘Pink Slime Swap Meat’ because it underscored our commitment to transparency and bringing them great food they can trust,” said Fresh & Easy spokesperson Brendan Wonnacott.
While shoppers are looking for quality and transparency, they are probably not looking to be confronted with every detail of the slaughtering process.
“As a consuming society we keep a pretty safe distance from the sourcing and preparation of our foods,” said Jay Jacobowitz, president of natural product industry consulting group Retail Insights, Brattleboro, Vt.
“I wonder how many people would eat sausages if they knew the process. So, I think there are a number of foods that fall into that category — namely animal products — that if we were exposed to how they were slaughtered and prepared, would not be as interested in eating them.”
Jacobowitz pointed to two forces at work: consumer aspiration for higher quality food sourcing and consumer preference for convenience.
“Yeah, if you were to survey the man or the woman on the street, they would say, ‘Yes, I want to know where my food is from,’ but that’s different than saying ‘I want to know how it’s processed. Up close.’”
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