Hy-Vee Inc., after being pressured by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, announced Wednesday that its stores would continue to offer ground beef containing a controversial ground beef additive.
Producers call it "lean, finely textured beef," but it has become widely known as "pink slime."
Hy-Vee's announcement, revealed during a Wednesday afternoon press conference in Des Moines with Branstad and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, marks a quick reversal of the Iowa-based chain's stance last week to join several other grocery chains and drop products containing the additive.
"The governor called and expressed his concern," Ruth Comer, a Hy-Vee spokeswoman said in an interview. "We were already looking at what we might do to take care of customers, and the governor's voice certainly did factor into the feedback we were already receiving."
The decision also marks the first public victory for the pro-beef lobby, including Beef Products Inc. the nation's largest producer of the additive.
BPI closed three of its four production plants earlier this week — laying off 650 workers — because demand for the product has been more than halved since the start of March.
This month has seen a crush of media coverage and social media campaigns against the product. Opponents are concerned about paying for a lesser product without it being disclosed and find it to be an unappetizing reminder about how meat gets produced.
The public concern has persuaded companies as large as McDonald's, as well as grocery chains, including Kroger Co., owner of Baker's Supermarkets, to announce that they're no longer using the additive.
A Branstad spokesman said the Governor's Office is working with Iowa economic development officials to assemble a list of retailers, restaurants and grocery stores for Branstad to call and urge support for BPI, its product and the workers.
About 200 people in Waterloo, Iowa, will lose jobs if the company can't reverse the decline in demand, and those jobs are at the root of Branstad's support for BPI, Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said.
"It's huge, he said. "These families are having their lives turned upside down because a company was subjected to a smear campaign. We're going to continue fighting for them."
Branstad said Wednesday that Iowa can ill afford to lose those jobs, especially given how important the agricultural industry is to the state's wider economy.
"We don't want people to quit eating beef," he said. "It's too important for our economy."
As of Wednesday evening, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman's office said he doesn't have plans to lobby any grocery stores or restaurants operating in Nebraska that have ceased using beef containing BPI's additive.
Thursday, BPI will host a group of governors and lieutenant governors including Branstad, who organized the trip, and Nebraska Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy, at its South Sioux City, Neb., facility, the only BPI plant currently operating. Heineman's office said he had a conflict and wasn't sure he could be there.
Branstad said they will learn about BPI's production techniques and try to educate the public about the benefits of BPI's beef compound.
"We're going to go through the plant and see how its made, show it's safe, and even eat some of it," he said.
Vilsack and Branstad on Wednesday called the additive healthy, safe and historically less expensive than other ground beef products.
The additive is made from the leftover bits of meat that remain after steaks, ribs and roasts have been processed. The hunks of meat, fat and connective tissue are heated to roughly 100 degrees Fahrenheit and mechanically separated to remove most of the fat.
The mix, which can be up to 95 percent lean, is then pressed into blocks and treated with an ammonia gas to kill harmful bacteria including E. coli and salmonella. The product then is used in ground meat to cut down on its overall fat content.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't require meatpackers to disclose the additive on nutrition or ingredient labels. The USDA long has made the lean product a staple in the school lunch program, Vilsack said.
"This product is safe," he said. "There's no question about it. We have said that repeatedly. This product is safe."
But earlier this month, in response to the outcry, the USDA decided to give school districts the option of using ground beef with or without the additive.
"We're not in the business of mandates," Vilsack said Wednesday. "We're in the business of responding to concerns of our customers, in this case, the school districts."
Hy-Vee said in a statement that the company heard from many customers who asked them to continue carrying the product. "They want a choice."
Comer, the Hy-Vee spokeswoman, said the company's 235 stores in eight states, including Iowa and Nebraska, will use clear signage to show what products do contain the additive.
Vilsack compared the uproar over "pink slime" to the public concern in 2009 during the H1N1, or swine flu, epidemic. If the "pink slime" talk continues, he said, it could have a much wider impact on the U.S. beef industry, including putting pressure on beef exports.
"You have to be very, very careful about the terms you use," he said.
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