On Thursday, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad visited Nebraska to do damage control against renewed opposition to the use of “pink slime,” which is quickly becoming a PR disaster for Big Ag. Otherwise known as “finely textured lean beef,” the congealed substance of fatty cow parts discarded from choicer cuts — a very common filler ingredient in beef products that the United States Department of Agriculture says is safe for consumption — is gassed with ammonium hydroxide in an effort to kill off E. coli and salmonella bacteria.
Branstad was joined by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Rick Perry, and lieutenant governors from Nebraska and South Dakota at a Beef Products Incorporated (BPI) processing plant in South Sioux City. After a brief tour of the plant, the politicians chowed down on burgers made with the pink slime in an attempt to assuage consumer concerns and protect thousands of beef-industry jobs (BPI is reportedly closing three plants, at least temporarily, including one in Waterloo). “It’s lean. It’s good. It’s nutritious,” Branstad said, according to the Associated Press, as he devoured a bunless patty.
The day before, Iowa governor-turned-US agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack joined Branstad to stand in solidarity against what Des Monies’ KCCI TV deemed a “smear campaign.” But the truth is a bit more complicated than just a bipartisan pushback against unfounded complaints.
As Tom Philpott explains at Mother Jones, the origin of the phrase “pink slime” dates back to a 2002 internal memo penned by a USDA microbiologist who wrote that calling the stuff ground beef was “fraudulent.” Six years later, in the acclaimed 2008 documentary Food, Inc., filmmakers got an inside look at the South Sioux City plant Branstad toured. In the film, BPI founder Eldon Roth predicted that “in five years” pink slime would “be in 100 percent” of US beef:
But the following year, a New York Times expose revealed that the use of pink slime was adding a fair amount of E. coli and salmonella to mass-produced beef (the offending meats were recalled). Then, last year, Jamie Oliver brought even more attention to the controversy on his Food Revolution TV show. But the USDA ignored the evidence, critics allege, because, among other reasons, the use of pink slime shaved 3 cents per pound off the price of ground beef used in school lunch meats.
And schools, the AP noted, may be the next big test for Branstad and his fellow pink-slime supporters. Already, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell have all recently announced that they will no longer use the product, as have some grocery chains (Hy-Vee is offering both pink slime and pink-slime-free varieties of beef). Later this year, school districts will have to decide whether the uproar is legit enough to merit spending an additional 16 percent per pound on beef. Update: On Friday, Branstad sent letters to school superintendents urging them to keep using the slime.
Politicians are also taking to social media in their attempt to re-rebrand pink slime as finely textured lean beef. All week Branstad staffers manning the governor’s Twitter account have been tweeting and retweeting positive comments about BPI, including one from Dan Lederman, a state senator from South Dakota (where BPI is based), who thanked Branstad and Iowa Rep. Steve King for visiting a Sioux City beef plant where supporters donned “DUDE IT’S BEEF!” T-shirts. Lederman also suggested that ABC News reporter Jim Avila should be fired for his reporting on pink slime.
And, in his trademark semi-literate fashion, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley tweeted Friday, “Dont b swayed by misinfo campaign agst Lean Fine Textured Beef. Safe for 20yrs. I eat it.” So there you go.