Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas : “As members of the media, you owe it to the consumers to report the facts. Let's call this product what it is and let pink slime become a term of the past.”
Beef-state governors, meat industry representatives, food safety hawks and a media horde descended on northeast Nebraska this week. The hastily planned tour of Beef Products’ South Sioux City plant came amidst a public relations nightmare over a product known within the industry as finely textured beef. But its more dubious name -- and one frequently cited by media --“pink slime” -- has garnered substantial traction in televised reports and social networking.
Republican Governors Terry Branstad of Iowa, Rick Perry of Texas, and Sam Brownback of Kansas launched an all-out media pushback during their visit and seized the opportunity to explain -- and defend -- finely textured beef.
Craig Letch, BPI’s director of quality assurance, explained the process of treating raw and processed beef with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria.
Craig Letch, BPI Director of Quality Assurance: “If there is potential to create a microbiological hazard like e coli 0157:H7, this is an extremely effective tool to eliminate if not reduce that completely.”
Other industry representatives argued the process of mixing previously leftover beef cuts into ground meat creates a healthier, leaner, product for consumers.
Dr. Gary Acuff,TexasA&MUniversity: “This gives us the opportunity to combine this and produce what the consumers want. You and I are old enough to remember we went to the store and you could find regular ground beef and maybe something lean ground beef. Now look what we have. 96% lean, 85% lean, all kinds of products because now we have the options to mix this together.”
But a message of leaner, albeit highly processed beef, has yet to breakthrough mainstream coverage of the industry-wide uproar.
Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, pinpointed one image in particular.
Janet Riley, American Meat Institute: “There is an unfortunate picture that is floating around that looks like strawberry yogurt. That is not lean finely textured beef and we’ve told people to stop using that photo and we’ve put out a nationwide statement.”
An intense social media backlash against finely textured beef has sent grocery stores scrambling to take the product off shelves while BPI fights for the survival of more than 600 jobs at plants on temporary shutdown.
The potential economic impact is just beginning to take shape. Under substantial consumer pressure, USDA will begin offering school lunches next year without finely textured beef at a higher price per pound. USDA will still offer 95 percent lean beef that includes the finely textured product. Earlier this week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack defended the safety of the product.
But media questions, particularly those from ABC News, drew a stiff response. One reporter questioned whether $150,000 in campaign contributions from BPI to Iowa Governor Terry Branstad influenced his support.
Terry Branstad, R – Iowa: “Absolutely not. I will always fight for my constituents and I will always fight for what’s right. And I’ll never be intimidated by anybody in the press that tries to make those kind of accusations.”
Nancy Donley, a food safety advocate whose son died after consuming an E. coli-laced hamburger in 1993, staunchly defended BPI’s use of ammonia and other safety measures AND strongly pushed back against allegations her non-profit organization is financially influenced by BPI.
Nancy Donley, Food Safety Advocate: “BPI has never asked us for a single thing ever. We will never be compromised in our positions of protecting consumers from pathogens in our food supply. That is our mission period. My goal is to put my organization out of business. That there are no food-borne illness victims anymore. That is my professed goal. No price can be put on my son’s head. I can’t be bought and neither can my organization. We represent the victims.”
BPI continues to pay its employees during a self-imposed 60-day shutdown to determine whether or not a public relations turnaround is possible. If not, hundreds of plant workers in multiple states could lose their jobs at the height of summer grilling season.