By P.J. Huffstutter
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Cargill Inc, one of the world's largest beef processors, will begin labeling when its finely textured beef is used in the making of its U.S. ground beef products, the company told Reuters on Tuesday.
The move by the U.S. meat manufacturer comes as consumers increasingly demand more transparency in how agribusiness companies make the food they eat and how these products are disclosed on the packaging.
The debate over food labeling has roiled for months, from last year's public and media furor over a rival beef product - which critics had dubbed "pink slime" - to Tuesday's vote in Washington state over whether to require labeling of genetically modified foods.
Cargill's finely textured beef is a processed meat product made from chunks of beef, including trimmings, and exposed to citric acid to kill E. coli and other dangerous contaminants. The product, which Cargill has made since 1993, is used to produce higher-volume, less fatty ground beef.
Cargill said the new ground-beef packaging, slated to debut early next year, came about after the agribusiness firm surveyed more than 3,000 consumers over the past 18 months about their views on ground beef and how it is made.
The survey arose after last year's intense media coverage of South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc, which makes a similar product called "lean finely textured beef," or LFTB. BPI relies on a different technology than Cargill and uses ammonium hydroxide, rather than citric acid, as a processing agent to kill potential pathogens.
Cargill was able to escape some of the social-media furor over "pink slime" because it uses citric acid, which the public generally perceived at the time as more palatable than the ammonium hydroxide used by BPI.
In the wake of the media coverage and subsequent public outcry over BPI's product in the spring and early summer of 2012, BPI's business plummeted. The company shuttered three plants and laid off hundreds of employees.
Over that period, Cargill said it saw demand for its "finely textured beef" drop by 80 percent. Though that business is slowly recovering, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not require such labeling, Cargill said consumers had made clear they wanted to know when such products were included in their ground beef.
"We've listened to the public, as well as our customers, and that is why today we are declaring our commitment to labeling Finely Textured Beef," said John Keating, president of Cargill Beef, in a statement.
Cargill's new packaging will state that a product "contains Finely Textured Beef" on boxes of ground beef that retailers repackage for sale to the public, company officials said.
By next year's grilling season, Cargill plans to have the same language printed on its branded packages of ground beef that are sold directly to consumers.
These days, ground-beef manufacturers have the option to alter their packaging to disclose the presence of such products, a change that the Agriculture Department approved after the ABC News broadcasts on BPI began in the spring of 2012.
Previously, neither BPI's LFTB nor Cargill's FTB were listed as ingredients or otherwise marked on ground-beef packaging because federal regulators said the products were beef.
Cargill and BPI said last year they both supported the rule change, in part to help restore consumer confidence in such products.
Some of BPI's customers - including Hy-Vee Inc, the Midwestern grocery retailer headquartered in Iowa - already disclose the product's use on their ground beef packages.
(Editing by Matthew Lewis)