Three governors, among them recent presidential candidate Rick Perry of Texas, two lieutenant governors, and the Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture all went to bat for Beef Products Inc. in a press conference in South Sioux City, Nebraska Thursday to assure consumers that Lean Finely Textured Beef, now widely known as “pink slime,” is safe and nutritious.
The event was part of a broader effort this week to fight negative press coverage and win back consumers after the company was forced to suspend operations at three of its four plants — halting around 70 percent of its production capacity — as major national retailers like Kroger and Safeway dropped the product.
“We need to stand together to clear up the misinformation that has been circulating in the media,” said Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who helped organize the event. “These accusations are totally unfounded… I am proud to say that for 20 years I and my family have been eating it.”
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback called the national controversy over LFTB “an unmerited and unwarranted food scare” and said it would lead to higher lean ground beef prices and cause more people to buy higher fat ground meat.
“Dude, it’s beef!” said Brownback. “It’s good beef.”
The governors largely echoed the message put out by the American Meat Institute just before the event. In a press release, AMI urged the media to stop using the term “pink slime.”
“Let’s call this product what it is and make ‘pink slime’ a term of the past,” said Gov. Perry, who warned that unchecked “social media rumors” and “hysteria” could take down any industry. “What industry is not vulnerable to this type of fast-spreading misinformation. If the beef industry can succumb to this, who’s next?”
Food safety experts including STOP Foodborne Illness President Nancy Donley and director of the Center for Food Safety at Texas A&M University Gary Acuff spoke in support of BPI’s food safety record and testing policies, which are ahead of the curve for the industry.
“It’s critical to have companies that put food safety first,” said Donley, who lost her only son to E. coli contaminated ground beef in 1993. Donley said she believes BPI’s food safety record is “unchallengeable.”
“I think these folks have saved lives. They don’t know it, they can never prove it, they can never show it, that you or you or you, or your child is alive because of something they’ve done,” said Donley, in an emotional address that received a standing ovation. “I’m really afraid of what campaigns like this can do to impact all of food safety…why would a company want to go that extra step, go that extra walk, only to put a target on their back?”
Financial ties questioned
The 45-minute press conference was tense at times. During two very heated exchanges between ABC News and the panel of speakers, BPI’s financial ties to both Gov. Terry Branstad and STOP Foodborne Illness were called into question.
In their online financial disclosure forms, STOP lists a $250,000 contribution in 2010 from an anonymous donor and a single $500,000 donation in 2009, also from an anonymous donor.
Nancy Donley fiercely defended her nonprofit’s independence and said STOP would gladly take “no strings attached” donations from other other corporations to help further their cause.
“We have been very grateful to BPI for being supportive of us,” said Donley. “BPI has never asked us for a single thing — ever. We will never be compromised in our position of protecting consumers from pathogens in the food supply. That is or mission, period. My goal is to put my organization out of business, so that there are no foodborne 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!”
Gov. Branstad was also questioned about what impact BPI’s $152,000 contribution to his 2010 campaign had on his decision to speak out in support of the company.
“None whatsoever!” shouted Branstad. “Let me tell you this, I will always fight for my constituents and I will always fight for what’s right, and I will never be intimidated by anybody in the press who tries to make those accusations.”
Both Donley and Branstad’s responses were met with loud applause from the audience.
President and CEO of BPI, Eldon Roth, has long been a donor to a number of candidates and campaigns. According to Federal Election Commission data, Roth and his wife have together given more than $380,000 over the years to presidential and congressional campaigns, political action committees (PACs), and to large party organizations, like the Republican National Committee. The Roths also contributed $21,000 to Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman’s 2010 election campaign.
The Roths have been engaged in the 2012 election, too. In October the couple donated $190,000 to state-level PACs in five states set up by presidential candidate Mitt Romney, according to the Washington Post.
Whether BPI and its supporters can win the message war remains to be seen.
“BPI has a major PR problem,” said Marion Nestle, a Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health professor at New York University. “The name “pink slime” is a framing device that is virtually impossible to counter.”
“Evidently, BPI has the political clout to pull in governors, USDA officials, and even food safety advocates on its behalf. I can’t help wondering whether their support for pink slime derives from a genuine belief that the public has treated BPI unfairly, or whether they are responding to the generous campaign contributions and charitable donations by BPI’s owner,” added Nestle, who has written several books on food politics and food safety. “I’m willing to grant that pink slime is safe, but that doesn’t make it acceptable.”
The term “pink slime” — which Gov. Brownback called an unfortunately catchy name — was first used by former USDA microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein in a private email to department colleagues. The New York Times later obtained the email via a Freedom of Information Act request and used the quote in an article that questioned the safety of BPI’s process.
Under Secretary Elisabeth Hagen said the term “pink slime” was not “certainly not any kind of official terminology” and is not widely used jargon in the meat industry.
At least two online petitions have been launched on behalf of BPI. One on change.org called “Sustainable Food Petition: Beef Is Beef” had well over 3,000 signatures as of Thursday and the other, “Address libel, slander and social media influencing government agency decisions” is posted at whitehouse.gov has a little over 1,500 — the latter takes issue with the USDA’s recent policy change, which gives school districts a choice on whether they will purchase ground beef that contains LFTB. The White House has pledged to respond to petitions that garner at least 25,000 signatures.
For recent Food Safety News coverage on the LFTB controversy, see: “BPI Suspends 70 Percent of Ammoniated Beef Production.”