Public outcry over a meatpacking process intended to make ground beef cheaper, leaner and safer has put the U.S. beef industry on the defensive.
More than 100 years after Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," sparked an outcry over conditions at meatpacking plants and nearly two decades after four people died and hundreds were sickened in an E.coli outbreak involving Jack in the Box hamburgers, a company that prides itself on cleanliness and food safety is at risk of being put out of business by a campaign against a product critics call "pink slime."
Beef Products Inc. of South Dakota sells lean finely textured ground beef created by taking beef trimmings that would previously have been scrapped and processing them in a way that greatly reduces the risk of E.coli contamination.
A 2009 story in The Washington Post described the Nebraska plant as "a fortress against potentially lethal bacteria."
Critics say the product is unappetizing, particularly after it is treated with ammonium hydroxide to reduce the risk of contamination with E.coli and other pathogens.
A YouTube video featuring British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver was posted last year and has gone viral, thanks to a boost from food bloggers and social media.
In the video, Oliver takes chunks of beef scraps and tosses them in a washing machine before mixing them with household ammonia. The end result looks pretty slimy and the women watching the demonstration looked understandably repulsed. "Do you want it fed to your children?" he asked. "No," they replied in unison.
Even the most vehement opponents of lean, finely textured beef, however, would have to admit the video was an exaggeration.
The process BPI uses to make the beef product involves industrial centrifuges and what BPI and the American Meat Institute describes as a "puff" of ammonium hydroxide.
Gary Acuff, director of the Center for Food Safety at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, is one of a number of food safety experts speaking out in support of BPI. He said the practice of exposing meat briefly to an ammonia gas has been FDA-approved for use in food safety systems since 1974. He said ammonia is naturally found in many foods, including beef, chocolate, cheese and baked goods "and it very effective in ensuring safety."
The American Meat Institute has urged the media to stop using the term "pink slime," which has been attributed to an internal U.S. Department of Agriculture e-mail in which a scientist, who no longer works for the USDA, disparaged the product. Photos initially connected with the story inaccurately depicted the mixture as looking like pink soft serve ice cream.
Facing consumer pressure, McDonald's and other fast food chains said earlier this year they would stop allowing lean, finely textured beef to be used in the hamburgers they sell. Then, USDA said it agreed to provide an option for school districts who don't want the substance. Finally, grocery stores started pulling out; issuing news releases saying they either never sold ground beef containing lean, finely textured beef or that they would stop selling it once current inventories were depleted.
BPI was built on lean, finely textured beef and without fast food restaurants, the USDA and most major grocery stores, business was starting to look bleak. The company announced it would close three of its four plants.
"Before last summer, we could not have imagined the personal, professional, financial and spiritual impact of the campaign of lies and deceit that have been waged against our company and the lean beef we produce," BPI founder Eldon Roth said last week in a letter published in The Wall Street Journal.
Last week, nearly a year after Oliver's video was posted on YouTube, BPI began fighting back in earnest, calling on governors from states poised to lose jobs and revenue if BPI goes under. The state leaders are doing their part, participating in photo-ops eating lean, finely textured beef burgers and placing personal calls to grocery chain executives, such as Hy-vee, based in Iowa.
Hy-vee had announced plans to stop purchasing the beef but reversed course Wednesday after a phone call from Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. The supermarket chain, which operates 245 stores in eight Midwest states, issued a press release saying they would again offer the meat although it would be labeled so consumers could tell what they were buying.
The USDA doesn't require a special label for foods containing lean, finely textured beef because it is not considered an additive.
"Dude, it's beef," isn't Wendy's replacement for the old "Where's the beef" slogan. It's Texas Gov. Rick Perry's new catchphrase after Thursday's BPI plant tour in Nebraska.
Perry, along with Branstad, Govs. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Dave Heineman of Nebraska, and Lt. Gov. Matt Michels of South Dakota, issued a statement Wednesday calling the campaign against the meat product "media sensationalism" that has caused "unnecessary panic among consumers."
"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," the statement said.
"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."
The statement raised the specter of higher food prices for consumers.
"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."
More than 650 workers have been temporarily laid off in Kansas, Texas and Iowa because of the controversy and the National Meat Association estimates as many as 3,000 jobs could be affected when suppliers are taken into account, Branstad's office said in a release.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the product is safe.
"I can guarantee you that if we felt this was unsafe we would not allow it to be marketed and we would not allow it to be part of our school lunch program," he said Thursday at a news conference in Iowa.