Iowa politicians mobilize to defend "pink slime"

Iowa politicians from both parties are speaking out today in defense of finely textured beef product, now commonly known as “pink slime.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced earlier this month that it will give schools the option of buying ground beef that does not contain the product. Several grocery store chains have recently announced that they will stop carrying ground beef containing the product, prompting Beef Products Inc. to suspend production of finely textured beef product at three plants for 60 days. One of the closed plants is in Waterloo. BPI is leaving its plant in South Sioux City, Nebraska running for now.

Iowa political reaction to the controversy is after the jump.

First, some background on “pink slime”:

In 2001, the company emerged as a key player in the nation’s ground beef industry after federal regulators approved the firm’s process of using ammonia in the beef processing to remove food-bourne pathogens such as salmonella and E.coli O157:H7.

The product is made out of scraps and fatty trimmings that, for years, typically had been sold off to make pet food or cooking oils because it was too difficult to remove the meat and was somewhat susceptible to contamination.

In general, BPI uses a heat and centrifuge process to melt the fat, collect and mash the meat, and spray ammonia hydroxide on it to remove possible bacteria and pathogens. The final product — which is formed into blocks, frozen and shipped in boxes — is relatively low in fat and often used as a cheap filler.

The phrase “pink slime” was first used by a former USDA microbiologist, Gerald Zirnstein, who used the term in a 2002 email to co-workers after having toured a BPI plant. The email was later released to the New York Times as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.

“Hamburger is not a completely safe product, but the BPI product is as safe, if not safer, than other parts of hamburger,” said Seattle-based food safety lawyer William Marler. “BPI has gotten crushed by public sentiment that this stuff is icky.”

British chef Jamie Oliver has been sounding the alarm about “pink slime” for nearly a year, and concerns about the product went viral in social media.

Today Democrat Leonard Boswell (IA-03) joined Republicans Steve King (IA-05) and Tom Latham (IA-04) in sending a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack asking his agency to defend finely textured beef product more vigorously.

Dear Secretary Vilsack,

As you know, the public is currently dealing with a great deal of confusion regarding high quality lean textured beef that’s produced by companies like Beef Products Incorporated (BPI). Given the tremendous amount of misinformation that was released to the public about lean finely textured beef, it is no surprise that many consumers have begun to question the quality of this product.

In an effort to address some of the concerns that had been raised with the use of lean finely textured beef in the National School Lunch Program, the USDA announced on March 15, 2012, that schools would have the option to remove the meat product from their school lunches. While we believe it is always appropriate for the USDA to give schools choices in how they meet the requirements of the National School Lunch program, we are concerned that schools, retailers and consumers are still left with the impression that lean finely textured beef is something other than a safe and healthy source of protein, which greatly concerns us.

The USDA plays a unique role in ensuring the safety of our nation’s food supply. As such, it must be the arbiter for facts and science in cases such as this. However, we are concerned that the USDA has not done enough to educate the public about lean finely textured beef and promote its use as a safe and healthy food choice.

As you know, lean finely textured beef has been added to ground beef for many years to make the product more lean. Before the LFTB is added to ground beef, it is treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria, especially E-Coli. In a 2008 Washington Post Article, Engineering a Safer Burger, the paper called Beef Products Incorporated (BPI), the nation’s largest supplier of LFTB, “a fortress against potentially lethal bacteria.” BPI makes lean, high quality 100% beef that meets the highest levels of safety. It is for this very reason that the USDA has included lean finely textured beef in the National School Lunch Program.

We are writing you today to ask that the USDA take steps to educate the public about the safety and benefits of lean finely textured beef and to encourage schools to make their food choices based on nutrition and food safety, not public perception. American consumers deserve sound science and access to the facts when deciding how to budget their grocery list, particularly when costs to family budgets remain unwavering. We ask that you engage the full force of the USDA to ensure that consumer choice is driven by facts, and not misinformation in public media.

Sincerely,

Steve King

Tom Latham

Leonard Boswell

King supplemented the letter with this press release:

“BPI and the lean finely textured beef product it produces have been the victim of a vicious negative media campaign,” said King. “The result has been a misinformed public that’s pressured retailers and the USDA to distance themselves from the company and its product,” said King. “The USDA is uniquely positioned to help educate the public about the facts as they relate to lean finely textured beef. Unfortunately the agency’s handling of this situation thus far has led the public to believe that this product is neither healthy nor safe. These false claims have put jobs and livelihoods at stake. We need Secretary Vilsack and the USDA to take an active role in setting the record straight. “

Vilsack appeared with Governor Terry Branstad at a press conference today to defend the safety of the product.

“I believe that the national media have permeated this discussion with a poisonous tone that is detrimental to our beef industry, that will hurt jobs and will hurt cattle producers in the state of Iowa,” Branstad said. “The time for bad mouthing and distortions is over. The time for the truth to prevail and combat this ugly situation that we currently find ourselves in is here.”

For 30 years, Branstad said, U.S. consumers – including himself – have been eating the meat product. It is 100 percent beef, 95 percent lean, quality meat that costs less, is healthier and is processed in a compressed manner that kills bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella, he said.

Branstad and Vilsack said the latest “scare” is similar to past concerns about apples, mad cow disease and H1N1 “swine flu” that adversely impacted fruit, beef and pork producers. The production and food safety technologies employed to make lean finely textured beef are USDA-approved, and it is produced in USDA-inspected meat processing facilities.

Vilsack said he has reiterated “without any equivocation” that the meat product is safe.

“I can guarantee you that if we felt that this was unsafe, we wouldn’t allow it to be marketed and we wouldn’t make it part of our school lunch program,” Vilsack said.

Tomorrow Branstad and governors representing Texas, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota will tour BPI’s South Sioux City facility and speak out on behalf of the product’s safety. Idling the three BPI plants has put 650 jobs in Iowa, Texas, and Kansas at risk.

Govs. Terry Branstad (Iowa); Sam Brownback (Kansas); Lt. Gov. Matt Michels, standing in for South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who is on a trade mission in China; Dave Heineman (Nebraska); and Rick Perry (Texas) today jointly issued the following statement:

“Our states proudly produce food for the country and the world – and we do so with the highest commitment toward product safety. Lean, finely textured beef is a safe, nutritious product that is backed by sound science. It is unfortunate when inaccurate information causes an unnecessary panic among consumers.

“By taking this safe product out of the market, grocery retailers and consumers are allowing media sensationalism to trump sound science. This is a disservice to the beef industry, hundreds of workers who make their livings producing this safe product and consumers as a whole.

“Ultimately, it will be the consumer who pays for taking this safe product out of the market. The price of ground beef will rise as ranchers work to raise as many as 1.5 million more head of cattle to replace safe beef no longer consumed because of the baseless media scare.

“We urge grocery retailers, consumers and members of the media to seek the facts behind lean finely textured beef. Science supports keeping the lean beef product on grocery store shelves for the benefit of American agriculture and consumers alike.”

Waterloo is in Iowa’s first Congressional district, and Democratic Representative Bruce Braley spoke to Radio Iowa today:

“You know the biggest issue is that the market is already responding to the allegations that have been brought up in a number of these news reports without a full and thorough conversation about the underlying tradeoffs of food safety that relate to the product that they are making – which is lean finely-textured beef,” Braley says. […]

Braley says he has talked with state officials about food-safety experts who can talk about how the product has reduced the “alarming rate of e-coli outbreaks related to hamburger.”

Braley says reducing the e-coli outbreaks is one of the reasons the product was created in the first place. “So my whole point is, it’s time to focus on the facts and give people an honest understanding of the trade offs of having this additive in their meat products,” Braley says.

The congressman says the impact on the workers also has to be considered as he says some 300 workers are now without jobs at the Waterloo plant.

I will be surprised if any Iowa elected official or candidate acknowledges any reason for legitimate concern about the “pink slime” manufacturing process.

Christie Vilsack, who is running against King in Iowa’s new fourth Congressional district, sent her statement about the controversy to the Sioux City Journal’s Bret Hayworth:

“As BPI monitors this situation, I’m hopeful that they will take the necessary steps to avoid layoffs that would greatly impact communities like Sioux City. There is no question that these products are safe. It’s unfortunate that voices outside of Iowa have chosen to misrepresent this product, with little concern for how it impacts the working families in our communities,” Vilsack said.

“I would have no problem with my children or grandchildren eating beef from BPI as part of a school lunch or other meal, as I likely have during my 38 years in classrooms across the state. I urge Iowans to stand in support of these products and to be a voice for the truth about them.”

Final note: the Hy-Vee chain of grocery stores reversed its decision to stop carrying “pink slime.”

In a statement, Hy-Vee said customers made clear they wanted to be able to make the choice for themselves whether or not to purchase a product that some have nicknamed “pink slime” as well as support companies that provide thousands of jobs in the Midwest.

“In response to this feedback, Hy-Vee has made a decision to offer both kinds of ground beef – both with and without Lean Finely Textured Beef,” Hy-Vee said in the statement. “Both products will be identified so customers can determine for themselves which type of ground beef they want to buy. This transition is under way and will be implemented in our retail stores as quickly as possible.”

What do you think, Bleeding Heartland readers? Will you be buying ground beef containing finely textured beef product? I buy 100 percent beef directly from Iowa producers who do not incorporate this additive.

UPDATE: Dave Dreeszen of the Sioux City Journal covered the governors’ tour of the South Sioux City plant.

“It’s time to end this smear campaign and stop the inaccurate, inappropriate and callous word designed to scare people,” Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said. “We cannot stand by and watch this company close its doors because people do not know the facts about BPI and the beef it makes.” […]

[BPI safety director Craig] Letch showed the visitors a plate of various size beef trimmings, the raw material for its lean beef product. The slabs, which are acquired from beef processors such as the neighboring Tyson Foods plant, are the fatty scraps left over after cattle carcasses are cut into steaks or roasts.

Letch also brought out 1-pound trays of the Lean Finely Textured Beef, bits of beef separated from the fat in the trimmings. Distributors, retailers and other suppliers mix LFTB, which is more than 95 percent lean, with coarser, more fatty ground beef to make meat with an overall lower fat content.

“If you’re like me and want a lean product, you want more of this,” Branstad said of LFTB.

Branstad’s communications director Tim Albrecht told me on March 30 that the governor does not oppose labeling of the product, so that consumers can decide whether they want to purchase it.

SECOND UPDATE: I recommend this report by Woody Gottburg of KSCJ radio in Sioux City about the governors’ press conference on March 29. Branstad sounded angry when an ABC reporter asked him “if $150,000 in campaign contributions from BPI owners Eldon and Regina Roth had anything to do with his support of the company.”

THIRD UPDATE: This is extraordinary: Branstad has urged Iowa school district superintendents to keep buying lean finely textured beef, saying that avoiding this product will increase child obesity and food safety risks. I am in rare agreement with The Iowa Republican’s Craig Robinson:

I understand the need for Branstad and other Midwest leaders to stand up and support agricultural products that are produced in their states, but is it necessary to step in and personally vouch for and stand behind one particular product?  Last time I checked, most Republicans believed in something called the free market.  If people don’t want their kids eating products that contain finely textured beef, that’s their prerogative.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like the pro-pink slime crowd is going beyond just saying the product is safe.  Governor Branstad is encouraging schools to continue to use the product.  His actions might have also convinced the folks at Hy-Vee to reconsider pulling the product.   I understand why Branstad and others feel like this is a smear campaign, but at the end of the day, it’s the consumer who dictates to the market not the other way around.

  • before this.......

    …the only pink slime was any Boswell advertisement….

  • Customer is always wrong

    Isn’t it amazing how Iowa cattlemen no longer mind if their beef is degraded in this unappetizing way?  They should be on the side of their ultimate customer–the cook at home.  But no, they side with the industry that increasingly controls them: meat packers.

    • cuts both ways for them

      If “pink slime” is phased out, it will take more cattle to produce the same amount of ground beef, which should drive cattle prices up.

      On the other hand, anything that potentially puts people off eating industrially-produced beef is a problem for cattlemen.  

  • pink slime production is gross but so is traditional sausage production

    The defense of egg producer abuse of living animals was more awful than this.   Particularly the suppression of the free speech rights of people who investigate the abuse by getting jobs at these facilities.   I do wish Iowa were not so beholden to big ag!  It is not a big employer, though it does make a lot of money for industrial ag oligarchs that live here and fund campaigns.  I do believe if we had a more sustainable system it would increase jobs by creating  more farmers.

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