“Pink slime” ire prompts key producer to close plants

Reuters / Beef Products Inc., the top producer of ammonia-treated beef product dubbed “pink slime” by critics, said it has halted production at three of its four plants in three states for 60 days beginning March 26.

The plant closures were hailed as a victory by activists who had argued that the product was unappetizing, but tempered their jubilance due to the temporary loss of about 650 jobs at a time when the economy was showing signs of recovery.

Rich Jochum, corporate administrator for the South Dakota-based company, said that the temporary closure could become “a permanent suspension.”

“This is a direct reaction to all the misinformation about our lean beef,” Jochum told Reuters.

The company shut down operations on Monday at its plants in Amarillo, Texas; Finney County, Kansas; and Waterloo, Iowa.

The closures are because of the recent outcry by food activists over its lean finely textured beef, Jochum said.

The Department of Agriculture (USDA) and industry experts say the meat was safe to eat. Jochum said the company would continue to address the public’s concerns, and blamed media reports and an organized campaign for “bullying” retailers into discontinuing the use of the beef product.

“In the end, today’s developments are a sad day for the families of those who lost their jobs,” said J. Patrick Boyle, president of the trade association American Meat Institute.

“Other American families will also pay the price at the checkout counter as they see the price of ground beef begin to rise while we work to grow as many as 1.5 million more head of cattle to replace the beef that will no longer be consumed due to this manufactured scare.”

Nancy Huehnergarth, executive director of New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance, a statewide group aimed at promoting healthy eating and changing food policy practices, said:

“It’s never a happy victory when you hear people are losing their jobs. But if BPI had been transparent about the process of their products, we would not be at this point right now.”

Two of the biggest U.S. supermarket operators, Safeway Inc. and Supervalu Inc., have said they will stop buying the ammonia-treated beef.

McDonald’s Corp. stopped using USDA-approved ammonia-treated meat in its hamburger products last summer.

Also known as lean finely textured beef, the product has drawn criticism from food activists because of the use of ammonia hydroxide in its manufacture.

“The demand in the market will hopefully resume,” Jochum said.

Tyson Foods Inc., a leading U.S. meat company and one of BPI’s suppliers of beef trimmings, told Reuters that the plant closures had forced the company to adapt to the news.

Though Tyson declined to say what the plant closures would mean to its financial outlook or to the industry as a whole, spokesman Gary Mickelson said in an email that less availability of lean finely textured beef “may result in higher consumer prices.”

Mickelson also said, “Alternatively, we believe there may be an increase in the supply of some of the raw materials used to produce ground beef, and this may result in lower values that could ultimately affect livestock prices.”

BPI, founded in 1981, began as a processor of frozen beef products. In 2001, the company emerged as a key player in the nation’s ground beef industry after federal regulators approved the firm’s process of using ammonia in the beef processing to remove foodborne pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli 0157:H7.

The product is made out of scraps and fatty trimmings that, for years, typically had been sold off to make pet food or cooking oils because it was too difficult to remove the meat and was somewhat susceptible to contamination.

In general, BPI uses a heat and centrifuge process to melt the fat, collect and mash the meat, and spray ammonia hydroxide on it to remove possible bacteria and pathogens. The final product — which is formed into blocks, frozen and shipped in boxes — is relatively low in fat and often used as a cheap filler.

The ammonia process has not been approved for processing in Canada and products made using it are not allowed to be sold in this country, Health Canada says.

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P.J. Huffstutter is a reporter for Reuters.

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