Perception may be more important than authenticity

by Keith Nunes
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Now that the uproar over the merits and quality of lean finely textured beef has subsided the opportunity opens to reflect on the incident and to determine what it may portend for the rest of the food and beverage industry. During the past decade consumers increasingly expressed concerns regarding the authenticity of ingredients used in processed products, focusing on those that are considered artificial or perceived as highly processed. Now the marketplace appears to be entering a new phase in which a product or ingredient must not only be authentic – it must fit within the consumer’s perception of what is authentic.

There is no question that lean finely textured beef is authentic. It is derived from the same pieces of beef trim that go into the billions of pounds of ground beef that are sold worldwide. The only difference is the pieces of beef trim that are subjected to the lean finely textured beef process are those that feature more fat than beef protein.

The company Beef Products Inc. is credited with creating the process for extracting the lean beef from the fattier pieces of trim. Until the process was developed 30 years ago, pieces of trim with more fat were a low value byproduct of beef processing because there was not a cost effective way of separating the pieces of lean protein from the fat.

With the development of the Beef Products Inc. lean finely textured beef process, a low value byproduct was transformed into a higher value item that helped ground beef manufacturers address several issues. By blending lean finely textured beef with traditional ground beef, processors were able to lower the fat content and improve the leanness of ground beef products. At a time when the prevalence of obesity is considered a public health crisis this should be considered a positive step.

Beef Products also treats the lean finely textured beef with the gas, ammonium hydroxide, which is a food safety protocol designed to reduce the incidence of pathogens and improve the safety of the ground beef products with which it is blended. Ground beef, most notably hamburgers, have been the subject of several high-profile food-borne illness outbreaks and recalls during the past three decades. Beef processors have invested significant amounts of money to improve the safety of their products and most people would be hard pressed to argue against the use of such an effective technology.

What has driven the vitriol against lean finely textured beef is simply its appearance. Dubbed “pink slime,” the product has a fine texture that gives it the appearance akin to an emulsion, something that is far removed from the image of beef with which consumers are accustomed.

Beef is not the only product that has been caught up in such a situation. At the same time Beef Products found itself attempting to salvage the public reputation of its product, the Starbucks Coffee Co. was the subject of similar criticism. The coffee company sources the red color it uses to enhance the hue of its Strawberries & Crème Frappuccinos and Strawberry Smoothies from cochineal extract, which is sourced from cochineal beetles. Initially it was vegans and vegetarians who objected to the use of an ingredient sourced from a living thing in a beverage, but the story soon grew in scope as consumers were misinformed that Starbucks was adding insects to its beverages.

The amount of cochineal extract in the beverage is miniscule, and, ironically, the quick-service coffee chain had switched to the red cochineal extract, which is perceived as natural, after consumers expressed concern over the company’s use of artificial colors in its products.

The companies tracking trends affecting the food and beverage industry have highlighted during the past few years the issue of authenticity, which is often defined as “real” products featuring fewer ingredients and being less processed. For companies considering how their products match with this trend, it may be equally important to understand how consumers perceive authenticity as well as ensuring a product’s label features natural ingredients.
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