Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is vowing that he will keep pushing back against criticism of lean, finely textured beef--a product that is added to ground beef as an extender. Federal agriculture officials say it is safe and nutritious, but critics deride it as "pink slime." On Monday April 2, the governor sent a letter to other governors in the U.S., telling them the smearing of the beef product's good name cannot and will not stand. He's asking the governors to join him in the drive to do away with the term "pink slime."
Branstad is also calling for a Congressional investigation to find out who started the social media campaign against lean finely textured beef. "I don't believe the American people should be misled by smear campaigns and we need to correct this by telling the facts and delivering accurate information and get people to stop using smear words," says Branstad. He's already spoken to U.S. Congressmen Steve King (R-IA) and Leonard Boswell (D-IA) about opening congressional hearings on this matter.
The Iowa governor explained the situation in his keynote address to the Iowa Master Farmer Awards Day luncheon March 30 in Des Moines. The annual meeting and awards are sponsored by Wallaces Farmer magazine; 275 people attended this year's event. The previous day Branstad and state officials from Iowa and several other cattle producing states had toured a Beef Products Inc. plant at South Sioux City, Nebraska, one of four BPI facilities which make the lean finely textured beef product.
BPI is a large processor of beef trimmings, and has four plants employing workers in Texas, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska. A social media campaign in recent weeks has attacked the company's lean, finely textured beef product, calling it "pink slime," which has caused some fast-food chains, supermarkets and school cafeterias to discontinue buying ground beef that contains the additive.
Unfounded accusations against the beef product are totally untrue
On March 26 BPI announced it is temporarily closing its plants in Texas, Kansas and Iowa, placing 600 people out of work, including 220 in Iowa. "At a time when many of us are working hard to create more jobs and new jobs, we are also seeing an unfortunate thing going on involving the beef industry," Branstad told the Master Farmer audience in Des Moines. "Today we have three BPI plants temporarily closed down because of unfounded and vicious accusations that have been made and are totally untrue."
The lean finely textured beef product is 100% beef and has been consumed by the public as an additive in ground beef since the late 1990s. It is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and USDA. "For over 20 years BPI has been using lean finely textured beef to lower the fat content in ground beef," notes Branstad. "And for over 20 years I and many other people have eaten it, a 100% beef product. We can't stand by and watch a company close its doors because people do not know the facts about BPI and the lean beef it makes. That's why I'm so adamant in telling this story."
The 100% beef product has been around for over 20 years, is federally approved
The product is made by using the trimmings and fatty meat left over from the other cuts of meat when beef carcasses are butchered. These trimmings are heated and spun to remove most of the fat, and the lean mix is then compressed into blocks and exposed to ammonium hydroxide gas to kill bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella. The result is a product which has been used for years and meets federal food safety standards. The product contains as much as 97% lean beef.
"The national media and social media sites have permeated this discussion on lean finely textured beef with a poisonous tone detrimental to our beef industry and to the jobs supporting it," says Branstad. "I do not believe workers in plants in Iowa, Kansas and Texas should wonder if their jobs are at stake because of these misleading headlines. This is a smear campaign being conducted against this beef product. It's time to end the smear campaign and stop the use of inaccurate words. It's time for truth to prevail and to combat this situation where consumers are being purposely mislead." ABC news earlier in March ran a series on meat processing, complete with graphic depictions and references to "pink slime."
The three governors on their March 29 tour of the BPI plant were Branstad of Iowa, Rick Perry of Texas and Sam Brownback of Kansas. The two Lt. Governors were Rick Sheehy of Nebraska and South Dakota's Matt Michels. The hastily arranged visit to the BPI plant was an attempt to win back some of the chain restaurants, supermarkets, school district cafeteria managers and home cooks who have in recent weeks quit using ground beef that contains this product.
USDA says this product is safe and includes it in the school lunch program
Because this beef product has consistently achieved high levels of safety, USDA has allowed it in the national school lunch program and continues to support the product. "In fact, both FDA and USDA have said there hasn't been one single case where someone has gotten sick from this product," says Branstad. "It is 95% to 97% lean and fits in with what we are trying to do today--combat obesity in our children in America."
He adds, "The use of ammonia in this process lets BPI end up with a lean finely textured beef product that is safe. The ammonia kills the E. coli and other bacteria. So you actually have a safer product. Another interesting fact is there is actually four times as much ammonia in tofu as there is in beef, and there's more in cheese and it is even in chocolate, too."
There are 3,000 jobs at stake that are tied to this product, says Branstad. And if it is lost from the market that loss of the supply of beef would likely cause an increase in beef prices at the meat counter. The process that makes lean finely textured beef allows the beef industry to harvest roughly 10 to 12 more pounds per animal—or the annual equivalent of about 1.5 million cattle.
Need to combat the misinformation and fear that is being spread by media
"The misinformation the national media has been spreading and what you read on Facebook and other social media outlets has to be combatted with the facts," says Branstad. "I was proud that on very short notice we were able to get several governors and lieutenant governors to join us for the BPI plant tour on March 29."
He adds, "We all went through the plant. We had experts in meat science from Iowa State University and Texas A&M there. We had the person in charge of the USDA inspection program, who is a doctor, explain how safe it is to eat this product. We even had a person whose son died of E. coli infection speak at the press conference and explain why the lean finely textured beef product is safe to eat."
Branstad added, "we need to combat the misinformation and fear with correct and accurate information. And we're not done yet. Iowa Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds and I are sending a letter to all superintendents of all the school districts in our state, telling them to not be bullied by this smear campaign that's being conducted by uninformed national media. We need to make sure our schools continue to use this product." In the letter to school superintendents, Branstad and Reynolds said "In more than 20 years, there has not been one sickness or death associated with E. coli or other bacteria. If lean finely textured beef is pulled from schools in Iowa, the risks will be greater in using products deemed less safe."
Vilsack: "If we didn't think this product is safe, we wouldn't allow it in USDA school lunch program."
Branstad says he wrote the letter to every governor in the U.S., asking them to do the same thing he did last week. "I'm asking the other governors to do what I did," he says. "I asked the HyVee Food Stores to not discontinue using this product. We need to encourage all supermarket chains to not be bullied on this issue."Also last week, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack spoke at a news conference with Branstad at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. Vilsack insisted the lean finely textured beef product is safe. He says the product, which makes up to about 15% of the ground beef when it is included with ground beef, was put into school lunch menus as a way to combat childhood obesity. He said USDA and the federal Food and Drug Administration have tested the product and "If we didn't think this product is safe, we wouldn't allow it in the USDA school lunch program."