The makers of Lean Finely Textured Beef, called "pink slime" by critics, insist their product is not just a cheaper filler added to fresh ground beef, they say it makes beef safer.
And, because LFTB is treated to kill pathogens, and since 2009, every box of LFTB has been inspected and held until it is cleared before shipping, manufacturer Beef Products Inc. claims that use of its product has never led to any deaths or sickness.
BPI owner Eldon Roth told supporters Saturday, "If your grocer doesn't have our product in their ground beef, they don't have the safest ground beef they could have."
But four food safety experts interviewed by ABC News disagree, and they say it's impossible to back up BPI's claim for several reasons.
First, LFTB is not a stand-alone product. You cannot buy it at the grocery store. As BPI said at its news conference, its "a different texture, and that is a finely, a fine texture."
It is not the same as ground beef; the company concedes consumers would not recognize it as hamburger. In fact, it has the consistency of a "meat jello" according to a former USDA microbiologist who studied the material. So, even if the ammonia gas spritz it gets at the BPI plant is effective in destroying e-coli and other pathogens, the consumer never eats that product on its own.
Instead, LFTB is added to fresh ground beef, at a 15 percent ratio. Does that make the beef it's added to safer?
At its news conference, BPI conceded the ammonia treatment of its product has no effect on the ground beef to which it is added.
When asked if LFTB kills pathogens in the beef it's added to, BPI's director of quality assurance Craig Letch said, "We cannot say that."
Bill Marler, a noted food safety attorney who has sued the meat industry over e-coli, toured the BPI plant and has praised BPI's efforts at food safety in the past, told ABC News today, that it is incorrect for BPI to say its product makes the beef supply safer. Because, if it is added to contaminated ground beef, it will have no effect on the e-coli or other pathogens; the ground beef its added to will still be contaminated after the so-called "pink slime" is mixed in.
Carl Custer, the former USDA microbiologist who opposed the inclusion of LFTB in ground beef, agrees, the 15 percent change would be "hardly significant."
Could 100 percent fresh beef actually be more risky because processors would be replacing the 15 percent ammoniated LFTB with untreated meat?
Michelle Simon, a public health lawyer, author of "Appetite For Profit," and a frequent critic of the meat industry, said, "This logic makes no sense." She warns of the potential risk, "Remember, the entire purpose of this stuff is to extend supply, right?"
"So it could even be argued that, far from making the beef supply safer, LFTB just helps spread the entire (unsafe) meat supply even further," Simon. "When you consider that it makes beef cheaper, which of course results in more people eating ground beef, you are exposing more people to our contaminated meat supply."
And Bill Marler adds, "There is no real recent evidence LBTF is any safer than regular ground beef, just BPI claims."
And since the meat industry is so in tune to keeping e-coli out of the ground beef supply, he says, "It won't let the wheels come off on safety without pink slime on the market, it will just test more."
As for BPI's claim that no-one has ever been harmed by a LFTB-made hamburger, that may or may not be true. It's impossible to prove or disprove, say food experts, because the USDA does not trace food poisoning outbreaks back to the processor.
Michelle Simon says, "Of course people have gotten sick eating beef with this stuff in it. We just cannot prove where the bugs came from."
And according to a 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning article in the New York Times, a hamburger patty containing LFTB was linked to the paralysis suffered by dancer Stephanie Smith.
Records obtained by the Times showed "Ten percent of Ms. Smith's burger came from Beef Products." And the article said "federal school lunch officials found e. coli in Beef Products material in 2006 and 2008, and again in August" 2009, leading the company to begin its inspect-and-hold program.
For these reasons, both Marler and Simon say BPI's broad claim that its product makes ground beef safer is misleading.
Now, the USDA has endorsed - but not ordered - the labeling of ground beef containing LFTB. The USDA has announced that beginning today its inspectors will certify that ground beef voluntarily labeled as either "contains Lean Finely Textured Beef" or labeled "LFTB free" will be inspected to ensure it is true to its new label.
BPI released a statement endorsing the plan, saying it is the first step to restoring the reputation of its product.