In response to the dramatic public reaction to recent media stories on Beef Products Inc.’s lean finely textured beef (LFTB) — the ground beef supplement often referred to as “pink slime” — leaders in government are coming to the defense of the product this week, calling it safe and nutritious and criticizing what they call sensationalist reporting.

On Wednesday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Iowa Governor Terry Branstad held a press conference at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines in an effort to dispel LFTB’s negative image. Vilsack defended the inclusion of LFTB in the school lunch program, while Branstad focused on the hit the economy would take from BPI suspending operations at three of its four facilities.

On Thursday, the two officials will join a number of other government leaders on a tour of the remaining operational Beef Products Inc. (BPI) facility in Sioux City, South Dakota in a show of support to the company. The sudden loss of business caused BPI to suspend all operations at plants in Garden City, Kansas; Amarillo, Texas; and Waterloo, Iowa.

The group touring the South Dakota plant will include U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety Undersecretary Dr. Elisabeth Hagen and governors Sam Brownback of Kansas, Dave Heineman of Nebraska and Rick Perry of Texas. 

The suspension at the Waterloo plant alone has jeopardized 200 jobs, Gov. Branstad said at Wednesday’s press conference.

“During a time when we’re all working hard as a nation to create new jobs, watching these facilities shut down is even harder to take since we know [the reports are] simply unfounded,” he added.

The USDA received hundreds of requests to completely discontinue its use of LFTB in the school lunch program, Vilsack said. He added that because the product is safe, contains less fat than other beef and is historically inexpensive, the USDA had no plans to remove LFTB from the lunch program.

With that said, schools now have the choice to remove LFTB from their lunchrooms.

“Our customers wanted a choice and I don’t think we’re in the business of mandating that they not have the choice they’re requesting,” Vilsack said. “We’re going to make sure they have a choice, but our goal is that they make that choice based on facts.”

Following significant public appeals in recent weeks, grocery chains such as Safeway, Supervalu and Kroger have said they will stop buying LFTB. In late January, McDonald’s announced that it would stop adding the product to its ground beef.

One grocery chain, Iowa-based Hy-Vee, has already reversed its decision to discontinue selling LFTB-supplemented meat at its 233 locations, saying it will instead label its ground beef containing LFTB to allow customers a choice. Walmart, the largest grocery chain in the U.S., has already announced it would adopt a similar policy.

Vilsack and Branstad said they hoped government and scientific authorities could appeal to other grocery chains and have them reconsider selling LFTB ground beef.

The group of officials touring the BPI plant on Thursday will address the media afterward.

“By taking this safe product out of the market, grocery retailers and consumers are allowing media sensationalism to trump sound science,” they said in a written statement. “This is a disservice to the beef industry, hundreds of workers who make their livings producing this safe product, and consumers as a whole.”