Business
3:00 pm
Wed April 4, 2012

Governors Back Beef Trimmings

By Sandhya Dirks

The consumer uproar over “pink slime” has now got the beef industry roaring back.

“We are a family owned business. We try to do the right thing for our company, for our customers, for our employees and for our community,” said Regina Roth, co-founder of Beef Products Inc., or BPI, one of the makers of the much-maligned beef trimmings.

Facebook and Twitter campaigns have put pressure on grocery chains and school boards to stop carrying meat with the filler — and it’s worked. BPI orders have slowed to a crawl.

The company announced this week that it would suspend operations at three meat processing plants in Kansas, Texas, and Iowa, affecting 650 jobs. And the governors of those states are doing damage control, starting on Thursday with a tour of the only BPI factory still open, in South Sioux City, Nebraska.

During the press event, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback blamed the name “pink slime.” He’s got another catch phrase in mind.

“I hope “dude it’s beef” catches on, because that’s what this is. Dude, it’s beef. And it’s good beef,” said Brownback, whose family raises cattle.

The food fight got started a few weeks ago when ABC’s World News Tonight interviewed former U.S. Department of Agriculture employee Gerald Zirnstein, the man who coined the term “pink slime.” Zirnstein also called the product an “economic fraud” — a cheap substitute for fresh ground beef.

But Scott Hurd, Iowa State University professor and former deputy undersecretary for food safety at the USDA, said the product is like any processed food. BPI takes what gets left behind on the chopping block.

“What they do then is warm those trimmings and then there’s kind of a centrifugal process that’s kind of like warming fat from skim milk, and so the fatty tissue goes one direction the lean tissue goes the other direction,” he said.

Then they add ammonia, which the USDA says is actually a pretty fireproof way to kill bacteria like e-coli and salmonella. But many consumers say they can’t stomach the idea of eating leftover meat that’s been treated with a solvent, even if they’ve been doing so for 20 years.

That frustrates Texas Gov. Rick Perry

“I have to go back to Texas and explain to people in Amarillo why they may not have a job. And I tell you I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “Has there been one individual that has been poisoned or has been sick or has died from a product that came out of this company?”

The USDA says there hasn’t.

Even if the public remains squeamish about this product, people are still going to eat hamburgers — though it may cost them more.  Agribusiness giant Cargill, which like BPI has cut production of meat scraps, said consumer resistance to the filler could lead to higher hamburger prices beginning this spring.

That’s partly because the extra meat is going to have to be made from somewhere. Namely one point five million additional head of cattle.  And experts say they’re probably not going to come from the United States.

For now, BPI is only closing their factories for the next 60 days. The company said it is hoping to change public opinion and get orders back up so they can re-open. But Hurd, at Iowa State, said that’s not going to be easy.

“It’s going to be difficult for many of the major grocery stores who said they weren’t going to use this, it’s going to be hard for them to put it back on their shelves in the same way,” he said. “So the companies like BPI, who were producing this product originally, I can’t imagine in the short term, in the next five years even, that they’re going to be back up to full capacity.”

But Iowa Gov.Terry Branstad is hoping he can give BPI a push.

“I called the president of Hy-Vee — it’s a supermarket chain based here in Iowa. They turned around and are going to continue to have this product available,” he said.

Branstad said he will call every grocery store in the nation if he has to. But the question is has the damage been done? The governors’ certainly hope not. And they are continuing to stake both their political capital — and their stomachs on it. 

After the plant tour, Perry, Branstad and others ate burgers made from the plant's meat at a news conference.

"It's lean. It's good. It's nutritious," Branstad said as he polished off a patty, sans bun.

He’s not the only one chowing down in support of BPI.

On Sunday several thousand Sioux City residents attended a picnic sponsored by the company. The main course? Hamburgers made with BPI beef.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.