SOUTH SIOUX CITY -- After getting a close-up look at how Beef Products makes its low-fat beef trimmings Thursday, governors of three states forcefully called for an end to "unwarranted" attacks they say have unfairly tarnished a major employer with a lengthy record of making a safe, nutritious product.
"It's time to end this smear campaign and stop the inaccurate, inappropriate and callous word designed to scare people," Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said. "We cannot stand by and watch this company close its doors because people do not know the facts about BPI and the beef it makes."
BPI's Lean Finely Textured Beef, which has been on the market for decades and meets all government safety standards, has come under assault in recent weeks by activists, who tagged the product with the unappetizing moniker "pink slime." Consumer worries, fueled by a social media storm, prompted several major retail chains to pull the products in the past two weeks, drying up much of the sales for BPI. The company on Monday halted production at its plants in Waterloo, Iowa, Amarillo, Texas, and Garden City, Kan.
"When we have these false rumors that get started, they have the potential to take down an entire company. That really hits close to home," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who mentioned that about 300 people at BPI's Amarillo plant are in danger of losing their jobs.
In a united show of support for a company that employs more than 1,300 people in their five states, Perry, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Nebraska Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy and South Dakota Lt. Gov. Matt Michels joined Branstad on a tour of BPI's South Sioux City plant, the only one still making LFTB.
"I'm here to push back against an unreasonable food scare," Brownback said.
The Kansas governor spoke as BPI safety director Craig Letch explained the production process inside a room in the South Sioux City plant, where operations have been significantly cut back.
Letch showed the visitors a plate of various size beef trimmings, the raw material for its lean beef product. The slabs, which are acquired from beef processors such as the neighboring Tyson Foods plant, are the fatty scraps left over after cattle carcasses are cut into steaks or roasts.
Letch also brought out 1-pound trays of the Lean Finely Textured Beef, bits of beef separated from the fat in the trimmings. Distributors, retailers and other suppliers mix LFTB, which is more than 95 percent lean, with coarser, more fatty ground beef to make meat with an overall lower fat content.
"If you're like me and want a lean product, you want more of this," Branstad said of LFTB.
The delegation, which included the governors and lieutenant governors as well as agriculture secretaries and cattle producers from the states, then spent about 10 minutes walking through the plant.
Wearing white lab coats, hard hats, hair nets and safety goggles, they saw a highly automated, extremely clean production area with extensive amounts of stainless steel tanks, pipes and equipment.
A handful of workers, outfitted much the same as the visitors, inspected the slabs of beef trimmings as they passed by on a conveyor. From there, the slabs are fed into a specialized grinder that removes any cartilage, connective tissue or bone chips.
The slabs are then sent into horizontal centrifuges, which spin at a rapid rate, separating the bits of lean beef from the fat. To facilitate that process, the cold trimmings are heated to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, Letch said.
The next step, treating the beef with a "puff" of ammonia hydroxide gas, has drawn extra scrutiny from critics. Letch said the ammonia compound, which is a naturally occurring element and has been approved by federal regulators for use in countless food processes for more than 35 years, has successfully killed E. coli and other pathogens that can cause sickness or even death.
After the treatment, the bits of meat are moved into large roller-presses with 12- by 14-foot drums, which flatten the meat and freeze it within 90 seconds. The meat is then pried off the drums and put into a chipper that churns out 60-pound bricks that are packaged for shipment.
After the tour, the governors and lieutenant governors traveled a short distance to the Marina Conference Center for a news conference to share their experiences.
"We got a very instructive picture of what you do at your facility," Perry told the audience, which included BPI founders Eldon and Regina Roth.
Along with the elected officials, three food safety experts also attested to the safety and nutritional value of BPI's product during the news conference.
Trying to counter the "catchy" name that has discouraged many consumers from eating the product, Sheehy unveiled a new slogan that he said tells the truth about it. The Nebraska lieutenant governor held up a T-shirt with the words, "Dude, It's Beef" and BPI's logo on the front. The city of South Sioux City handed out the colorful T-shirts to the elected officials.
Before they left the Marina Inn, they also tried out an LFTB burger with all the trimmings. "It tastes excellent," Perry said as he exited the room. "Excuse me for talking with my mouth full."