Debate over (pink slime' in ground beef shifts to labeling

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, April 4, 2012 -The fallout over production of “lean, finely textured beef” (LFTB) dubbed “pink slime” continues to drag down beef prices, hurt meat companies involved with the process and prompt calls for congressional actions to both underscore the safety of the process and label the product.

On March 26, South-Dakota based Beef Products Inc. suspended operations at three of its four plants, costing about 600 jobs, and this week, Pennsylvania-based AFAFoods cited publicity over “pink slime” in its filing for bankruptcy. Cattle futures set new lows on Tuesday and the market is still trying to sort out the implications.

“Short term, this is having a tremendous amount of impact on the market. We are talking probably about $15-20 head, lost value, directly correlated with this issue.” explained Kevin Good, CattleFax senior market analyst, during a radio interview with Broadcaster Ron Hays last weekend.

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But some industry sources say the tide of negative publicity may be starting to turn. A more comprehensive industry pushback started in full force last week when Iowa Governor Terry Branstad joined the governors of Texas and Kansas and the lieutenant governors of Nebraska and South Dakota for a tour of  Beef Products Inc. in South Sioux City - complete with “Dude, it's Beef” T-shirts. Branstad is encouraging other governors to stand up for the safety of LFTB and also hosted a press conference with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“I've said this hundreds of times," said Vilsack, a former two-term Democratic governor of Iowa. "This product is safe. There's no question about it. We've said that repeatedly and we'll continue to say it." But during last week's Senate Subcommittee hearing on Agricultural Appropriations, Vilsack also noted that he needs to be responsive to his customers.

“We're not in a position to mandate that people do a certain thing or buy a certain thing.  Several hundred school districts have contacted us asking for choice. We have to be responsive to our customers and we've provided that choice. But we have to make sure customers are making those choices based on scientific fact.  Not on belief that it isn't safe, because that's not true.”

On Monday, the USDA said it would approve requests from companies producing ground beef to voluntarily label LFTB.

Earlier this week Gov. Terry Branstad called for a congressional investigation into the source of what he called a "smear campaign" meant to discredit LFTB made by BPI. Rep. Steve King, R-IA, is working to schedule a congressional hearing in April on this subject and circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter designed to “set the record straight” on the product. The letter was signed by Reps. Tom Latham, R-IA, Leonard Boswell, D-IA, Adrian Smith, R-Neb, Kristi Noem, R-SD, and Tim Huelskamp.

At the same time, calls for federal labeling of LFTB continue. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, D-ME, and 10 co-sponsors introduced a bill on Friday that would require products containing LFTB to indicate that on the label. The Requiring Easy and Accurate Labeling of Beef Act (REAL Beef Act) would require any beef containing ‘finely textured ground beef' to have a label at the final point of sale.

Just two weeks earlier, Pingree was joined by forty-one Members of Congress in an effort to convince the Obama Administration to ban all LFTB from school cafeterias.

“This is about choice and transparency.  Parents and consumers want to choose whether or not they serve “pink slime” but they can't do that unless they know whether or not it's in the product they are buying,” Pingree said. Over a quarter of a million people recently signed an online petition, started by “The Lunch Tray” blogger Bettina Elias Siegel, calling for USDA to end serving LFTB in schools.

At the same time, some restaurant chains are starting to use the lack of LFTB in their products as a marketing tool. The Wendy's Co. ran full-page advertisements in eight major newspapers across the country Friday, reassuring customers that it has never used the beef filler known as “pink slime” and never will.

"We had conversations with Wendy's to express our disappointment with the advertisement,” explained National Cattlemen's Beef Association Spokesman Mike Deering. “The fact is lean finely textured beef is pure, 100 percent beef. It's safe. It's wholesome. It's nutritious. Period."


Original story printed in April 4th, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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