After an ABC News investigation detailing the use of a cheap meat filler, finely textured lean beef, commonly called pink slime, which is in 70 percent of the ground beef sold at supermarkets, J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, defended the practice as a way to safely use what otherwise would be wasted.
"BLBT (Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings) is a sustainable product because it recovers lean meat that would otherwise be wasted," he said in a statement.
However, the substance, critics said, is more like gelatin than meat, and before Beef Products Inc. found a way to use it by disinfecting the trimmings with ammonia it was sold only to dog food or cooking oil suppliers.
But Boyle says "the beef trimmings that are used to make BLBT are absolutely edible" and Janet Riley, senior vice president of public affairs for AMI, said there was no reason to label beef that contains "pink slime."
"What are you asking me to put on the label, its beef, it's on the label, it's a beef product, it's says beef so we are declaring … it's beef," she said.
But Kit Foshee, who, until 2001, was a corporate quality assurance manager at BPI, the company that makes pink slime, contends the trimmings bear little resemblance to beef.
"It kind of looks like Play-Doh," he said. "It's pink and frozen. It's not what the typical person would consider meat."
He and two former USDA inspectors told ABC News the filler commonly referred to as pink slime comes from a low grade of beef trimmings unlike what they call real ground beef. Foshee said that he was fired by BPI after complaining about the process used to make the filler, and the company's claims about it. Since then, he has spoken out against the product.
The low-grade trimmings come from the parts of the cow most susceptible to contaminaton, often close to the hide, which is highly exposed to fecal matter. But because of BPI's treatment of the trimmings - simmering them in low heat, separating fat and tissue using a centrifuge and spraying them with ammonia gas to kill germs - the United States Department of Agriculture says it's safe to eat.
If you have questions about "pink slime," email us at ABC.WorldNews@abc.com.
The company calls the final product "Finely Textured Lean Beef." Foshee said it was not as nutritious as ground beef because the protein comes mostly from connective tissue, not muscle meat.
But BPI, its inventor and primary manufacturer, told ABC News in a letter from a lawyer today that pink slime was USDA approved beef and was nutritious.
"All beef is a good or excellent source of 10 essential nutrients, including protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins," H. Russell Cross, head of the department of animal science at Texas A&M University, said in a statement to ABC News. "Finely textured lean beef helps us meet consumer demand for safe, affordable and nutritious food."
ABC News was flooded with questions from concerned viewers following its investigation into pink slime.
Many, like Dale Rittenhouse, wanted to know where beef with pink slime was sold.
"What stores use pink slime?" Rittenhouse wrote.
So ABC News traveled across the country to the meat section of grocery stores to see if it's in the ground beef they sell. At most stores it was impossible to tell for sure whether the beef contained pink slime. At one store there was no way to know from the labels and the butchers did not know the answer.
ABC News emailed the top 10 grocery chains in America and seven responded:
1. Safeway "We rely on the federal government to help guide us on food safety issues. USDA has been clear in its judgment that Lean Finely Textured Ground Beef is a safe source of nutrition. However, we are reviewing the matter at this time."
2. Ahold (Stop & Shop/Giant) "Stores operated by the divisions of Ahold USA do carry ground beef made with Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings (BLBT), also called Finely Textured Beef (FTB). Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings (BLBT) is beef and is absolutely safe for consumption. To make the product, beef companies use beef trimmings, which are the small cuts of beef that remain when larger cuts are trimmed down. These trimmings are USDA-inspected, wholesome cuts of beef. This process has been an industry standard for almost 20 years. Alternatives to the conventional ground beef supply, in the form of Certified Angus Beef and Nature's Promise ground beef products, are available to customers in stores across all of the divisions of Ahold USA. These products do not include the use of BLBT. Customers are being encouraged to ask any meat associate should they have any questions or would like to be directed to meat that does not include Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings. Our labeling is in compliance with USDA regulations. BLBT is USDA tested and approved ground beef and therefore does not require labeling."
3. Costco Does not use pink slime. "Anything that we sell at Costco we want to explain it's origins, and I personally don't know how to explain trim treated with ammonia in our ground beef," Craig Wilson, vice president of quality assurance for Costco, told ABC News. "I just don't know how to explain that. I'm not that smart."
4. Publix "We have never allowed the use of LFTB (pink slime) in our meat. It's 100 percent ground beef with no LFTB."
5. H-E-B "All our ground beef sold at H-E-B is 100% pure with no additives."
6. Whole Foods Does not use pink slime.
7. Kroger "We do not use finely textured beef in our fresh ground beef. … We are routinely presented the finely textured beef as an option, but have always refused."
In addition to Whole Foods, Tops Markets told ABC News it does not use "pink slime."
A viewer, Miles Herbert, wanted to know, "Is there any evidence that organic meat contains this pink slime?"
It turns out there isn't. If your meat is stamped USDA Organic, it's pure meat with no filler.
Otherwise, you can't know from the packaging because pink slime does not have to appear on the label. And the USDA is giving no indication it will force meat packers to lift the veil of secrecy any time soon.