DAKOTA DUNES -- The head of Beef Products Inc. pledged Thursday to continue to educate the public about the safety and nutritional value of the Siouxland company's boneless lean beef trimmings.
"As parents and consumers continue to make important decisions about the food they and their children eat, we hope that they listen to credible sources outside media sensationalists and take note of the overwhelming support from the government and scientific community who have routinely testified that our lean beef trimmings are 100 percent beef and are produced, and tested in a way that makes this food very safe," CEO and co-founder Eldon Roth said in a statement.
Roth made his comments after the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bowing to a growing public firestorm, dealt a potential blow to the Dakota Dunes-based company. The USDA, which administers the federal school lunch program, said local school districts would be given the option of avoiding BPI's "lean finely textured beef," or LFTB, which critics deride as "pink slime."
The stomach-churning epithet, first coined by a federal microbiologist three years ago, exploded in social media circles in the past few days after a flurry of national media reports.
Nearly a quarter-million people signed an online petition calling for the USDA to totally remove the ammonia-treated product from school lunch trays.
The USDA stopped short of an outright ban. In response to requests from school districts across the country, however, the USDA said it wanted to be transparent. Beginning next fall, schools will be able to choose between 95 percent lean beef patties made with LFTB or less-lean ground beef without it.
The USDA, which buys about a fifth of the food served in school districts, is contracted this year to buy 111.5 million pounds of ground beef. About 7 million pounds of that is LFTB, which accounts for no more than 15 percent of a single serving of ground beef.
On average, schools in the National School Lunch Program buy about 20 percent of their food through USDA. The rest is bought directly by local schools or through their designated private vendors.
None of the ground beef served to Sioux City Community School District students contains LFTB, district spokeswoman Alison Benson said.
Lunchtime Solutions contracts with 40 school districts, including Bishop Heelan and Dakota Valley. The North Sioux City-based company buys its ground beef from four main sources, spokesman Chris Goeb said Thursday. None report supplying meat mixed with LFTB, he said.
In its announcement Thursday, the USDA emphasized that LFTB, like all other products for the school lunch program, is "safe, nutritious and affordable."
"We agree with USDA's reiteration that this is 100 percent beef, plain and simple," Roth said in his statement. "As such, our lean beef has the same nutritional value as all other types of lean trim used to make ground beef, and is the same great source of protein, iron, zinc and B-vitamins, while also being very low in fat."
LFTB is derived from a specialized process that separates bits of lean beef from fatty trimmings left over from packinghouse cuts. The product is treated with a "puff of ammonium hydroxide gas" to kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.
Ammonia hydroxide, the company pointed out, is a naturally occurring component widely used in the processing of numerous foods, such as baked goods, cheeses, gelatins and chocolate. The federal Food and Drug Administration affirmed the treatment process in 1973, and the USDA approved it in 2001.
Cargill Inc., which operates beef plants in the Midwest, also produces LFTB. The Twin Cities-based ag-conglomerate points out its treatment process, which uses citric acid, is different from BPI's.
BPI's growing school lunch business was a key component of an ongoing $400 million expansion of its South Sioux City complex. The multi-year project was announced in 2007.
After a previous uproar over "pink slime," the company reportedly lost some major customers, including fast-food chains McDonald's, Burger King and Taco Bell.
As a privately held company, BPI does not typically discuss its "financial or operational information," spokesman Rich Jochum said Thursday in an email. But Jochum confirmed all four of BPI's plants continue to operate. The company also has not laid off any employees.
BPI employs more than 1,500 people, including about 475 at its South Sioux City complex.
Some employees, of their own accord, have been posting on social media sites to set the record straight about LFTB, Jochum confirmed. To respond to common misconceptions about LFTB, BPI also launched the website pinkslimeisamyth.com
The company highlights the online site and the lean beef trimming process in an advertisement scheduled to run in the Journal on Sunday.