by Marion Nestle
Mar 30 2012

I’ve been lobbied! Intense efforts to save pink slime aimed at governors, USDA officials, and me

I don’t think I’ve ever been the target of a concerted lobbying campaign before, but efforts to restore the public image of pink slime—a.k.a. Lean Finely Textured Beef—have even gotten to me.

This week, while I was working on my column on pink slime for the Sunday, April 1 San Francisco Chronicle, I received e-mail messages from:

  • Dr. Michael Osterholm, the Minnesota-based food safety authority who I have never met but know about through his expertise and strong support for irradiation as a beef safety measure
  • Bruce Smith, the Environmental Health and Safety officer of Beef Products, Inc (BPI), the company that makes pink slime
  • Bruce Silverglade, the lawyer who now represents BPI but for many years was chief counsel for Center for Science in the Public Interest

All wanted me to know that pink slime was being treated unfairly because it is safe, nutritious and healthy, and getting rid of it will make ground beef more dangerous.

These efforts to educate me must be understood as a tiny fraction of the effort that is going into lobbying in favor of BPI and its product.  Yesterday, the governors and lieutenant governors of five states toured BPI’s facilities and participated in a heated press conference, which also included the undersecretary of USDA for food safety.

This is breathtakingly high-level—and perhaps unprecedented—support for the public relations troubles of a private food company.

Helena  Bottemiller of Food Safety News has a terrific report on these events.   She quotes the remarks of Iowa Governor Terry  Branstad:

We need to stand together to clear up the misinformation that has been circulating in the media…These accusations [against pink slime] are totally unfounded… I am proud to say that for 20 years I and my family have been eating it.

Here’s his instant classic: “Dude, it’s beef!”

The press conference also featured Nancy Donley, the founder and president of STOP Foodborne Illness, and mother of a child who died from eating a contaminated hamburger in 1993.

I had seen Ms. Donley’s letter about her son and the need for safe beef in a BPI advertisement in the Wall Street Journal on March 23.  It contained one eye-popping statement:

BPI has generously supported STOP and has never asked for anything in return.

Really?  I’d say BPI has gotten plenty of return on this particular investment.

STOP posts its tax statements online and these reveal a few small contributions from named private donors ($5000 to $10,000) but one of $250,000 from “a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.”

It doesn’t take much to deduce that this must be from Eldon Roth, the owner of BPI.

My comment to Food Safety News sums all this up:

Evidently, BPI has the political clout to pull in governors, USDA officials, and even food safety advocates on its behalf. I can’t help wondering whether their support for pink slime derives from a genuine belief that the public has treated BPI unfairly, or whether they are responding to the generous campaign contributions and charitable donations by BPI’s owner…I’m willing to grant that pink slime is safe, but that doesn’t make it acceptable [see note below].

Caroline Scott-Thomas writes in NutraIngredients that pink slime is “safe, nutritious—and icky” and that the food industry needs to take action “to avoid being at the mercy of the next consumer scare.”  She suggests:

  • Tell people what you’re selling them, no matter how unsavory it may seem.
  • Spend more time preempting consumer concerns, rather than reacting to them.
  • When industry does need to react, it should – quickly and with honesty.
  • The idea of “pink slime” might be icky, but it has definite advantages, and we should have heard about them before.

Good advice. Watch for my comments on the pink slime situation in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday.

Note added, April 4: Michael Osterholm has no financial or other ties to BPI (see post of April 4).

  • Erik

    Nice post Marion, your link to the Catherine Scott-Thomas post doesn’t work. Concur with both her and your punchline.

    Since reading your book “food politics” a decade ago, I’ve wondered why industrial food is SO opposed to clear labeling and communication.

  • Looking forward to reading your review Sunday.

    Until then, Jon Stewart’s billboard states the case:

  • mary

    I feel as if the people who just want this item labeled so we can avoid it, because we should have a choice, are now being railroaded by big politics. Mr. Roth did not achieve success to the tune of $100’s of millions of dollars for being a nice guy. Like anyone who makes that kind of money they will do WHATEVER it takes to keep it coming. Give the people the choice!

  • Chris

    As one of those internet vandals I must respond. I am grateful to finally feel I have an outlet for my voice, my OUTRAGE at how American corporations are treating the American public with such complete disdain. They make other, healthier/safer versions of products for the rest of the world- but here- we get the worst of the worst because our politicians/gov’t bend over for the hand that feeds them- not the one that votes them into office..
    The FDA approved the product at a higher pH than is currently being used- due to customer complaints about the ammonia smell (which they thought was contamination as there was no ammonia on the label) the amount of ammonia being used was lowered and is no longer the level at which the process was approved. That is a problem for me. Second- the process is from 2001, according to public statements by the BPI head, not 20 years ago. Also- how would we know if there were issues stemming from the consumption of the product- As it isn’t labeled no one knows when or if they have consumed it so no finger CAN be pointed.. convenient.
    I have been voting with my dollars as well. We purchase almost nothing from the big corporations any more. No soda. Our dairy consumption is minimal now. We only buy grass fed organic proteins, lunchmeat is no longer something I purchase due to pink slime concerns and we read the crap out of the label on any processed items we do buy- nutrition is my hobby and I am Stanford alumnus. I am not going to have the wool pulled over my eyes by a lobbyist led gov’t any more. The corporations are in bed with the gov’t- it is obvious, and I am not going to support it with my hard earned money. No we are not wealthy, we scrimp elsewhere because it has saved my health eating this way- and I have lost 95 pounds!

  • Michael Bulger

    I can’t help but take issue with the food safety card being played on BPI’s behalf.

    To my understanding, these trimmings were previously kept out of the human food supply. The trimmings are also known to be more vulnerable to contamination.

    BPI found a way to make more money off of these trimmings. They could treat them with ammonia and sell them for ground beef patties. The treatment brought the trimmings closer to normal ground beef safety levels, but as BPI said in the NYTimes, they “are not perfect.”

    If the ammonia treatment is improving the safety of LFTB, it is still not going to effect the food safety of ground beef patties. To repeat an assertion I made previously, dropping a tablespoon pasteurized milk into a glass of raw milk doesn’t improve the safety of the glass. The same holds true for the ground beef supply, as I think we can all be assured the AMI intends for us to “drink the whole glass”, if you will.

    Ammoniated LFTB in ground beef patties is about BPI making more money off of hazardous trimmings. It is not about reducing illness.

    As I will be saying, “Dude, it’s raw ground beef.” Cook thoroughly.

  • I get that it’s beef…but my main concern is the ammonia treatment. It’s tough because when you’re producing beef on this kind of scale, it requires safety measures be taken, not always to the consumer benefit. If consumers want cheap beef and don’t mind ammonia, that’s their choice, but label it as they have a right to know what’s going into their bodies. This is fuel for the local, small farm movement, so the industry can respond or they can lose market share. In the age of social media, you can’t just throw millions of dollars at media outlets anymore, and people aren’t going to share industry garble from lobbyists either.

  • Chuck

    Marion, with all due respect, would you drop the inflammatory ‘pink slime’ reference?. As a highly respected academic, shouldn’t you stay away from word bombs?

  • The five governors who are part of this lobbying effort to spruce-up the image of pink slime filler represent the four states (Texas, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska) where BPI operates plants, and the state(South Dakota) in which BPI is headquartered.

    Also, all five governors in question are Republicans, and BPI owners Eldon and Regina Roth are major Republican party contributors. In fact, in January 2011, the Washington Post wrote this about the Roths:

    “On a single day in October, Eldon and Regina Roth each wrote separate checks to political funds set up by Republican Mitt Romney in five states around the country. That allowed the South Dakota beef barons to donate $190,000 – well beyond limits for contributions to federal political action committees.”

    This lobbying effort is about protecting powerful political donors, not about protecting public health.

    I wrote about this in greater detail at my new blog project:

    Thank you for all you do, Marion. “Food Politics” and “What to Eat” are absolutely indispensable guides.

  • tess

    Timothy G — that’s HILARIOUS!!! “This sort of callous snubbing validates every charge of elitism and food snobbery affixed to the “real food” movement”….

    we feel we have right to know what’s in our food, and that makes us a bunch of meanies to the poor li’l ol’ worker and his family? who are you trying to fool? you think to awaken our sympathies for this archetype so that we’ll forget his employer is making obscene profits from INDUSTRIAL WASTE? i’ll bet you think water fluoridation is a good thing, too.

  • Congratulations! (I think)

  • Mary, I’m a “just label it,” fan as well.

    Big Ag’s assumption that labeling will cut consumer demand is only partially true. Monosodium glutamate is openly labelled for the most part. Some people avoid it and some people don’t care. Everyone knows that lips and arseholes are in hot dogs, and they sell quite well. Mountain oysters, tripe, headcheese… there are all sorts of extra parts that some people eat and some people don’t. All clearly labelled yet saleable. There are enough people out there who won’t care about “pink slime” as long as it keeps the price down. They are welcome to it. They can have mine, too.

    (And hopefully thse governors get to enjoy this tasty ingredient every day in the government cafeterias.)

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  • FarmerJane

    Welcome to the hard ball world of Big Food. We farmers have felt the full fire of highly paid big food lobbyists and lawyers flame us when we have tried to stand up for our rights. (right to free market, right to equal access to USDA power, right to contract freely, right for truthful labeling and enforcement of standards of identity).
    We farmers live in a climate of fear where my neighbor who testified at the antitrust hearings was then served with a big food subpoena hauling him in for depositions to be questioned under oath as to what he said in the hearings. Scary and costly. Would any of you like to be served with a subpoena at your home hauling you into depositions in a big fancy law firm office for your comments in this column?
    Years ago, any of us who objected in the media to the introduction of bovine growth hormones got personal calls at our homes from Monsanto headquarters. Even though the vast majority of US dairy farmers DON”T use bovine growth hormones, Monsanto succeeded in ruining our good names and the public now believes that all farmers plug their cows full of rbgh when the majority do not. Word bombs concerning dairy are freely tossed around on the internet with total disregard to the future of the average farmers and farm workers.
    Some of us farmers have told consumers about these tactics for years and years and warned of the increasing power and concentration of food companies to the general public. The response was usually a lockstep answer that food should be cheaper and we should be more efficient and make more and more cheaper food. The powers that be are now totally in the back pockets of huge corporations that control food coming in and going out. Witness the governors of five states coming out for BPI.
    By the way, I concur about the pink slime terminology. I do not see any product that comes from our beautiful cows to be “slime”. Yes, it is definately a lower quality food product that I believe the consumers have a right to be labeled. But please, drop the Slime-Word. As consumers FINALLY start to ask about just what is in their food, we need honest appraisal of each product and process in the future, and not word-bombs. The 650 people who lost their jobs because of this episode deserve compassion and truthfulness every step of the way.

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  • Gerald Zirnstein, Ph.D.

    Dude! This stuff is inferior shi@! Carl Custer and I have the details to prove our viewpoint. Even Dr. Michael Osterholm likes this cra@?? That is not so amazing considering he is an M.D. with no food or meat science training, which I have. This is sad that fools that just want to add large amounts of antimicrobials to INFERIOR meat will still try to push this off on the public due to their ignorance.

    Gerald W. Zirnstein. Ph.D. (B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in Food Science, Microbiology and Molecular Biology)

  • Jack

    In response to the comment by FarmerJane:

    “The 650 people who lost their jobs because of this episode deserve compassion and truthfulness every step of the way.”

    I know how to get each and everyone of these 650 citizens of the united states of america their jobs back at BPI. Now this is a reason to fire and deport at least 650 illegal aliens who are working at BPI.
    Then BPI can give the jobs the illegals were doing to the 650 american citizens who lost their jobs because BPI was being money hungry by not telling the American Consumer the truth about this stuff. These were Jobs that they had lost previously to the illegals. And i think BPI should be required to pay the full return transport cost for the illegals to be sent back to their countries of citizenship.

  • Farmer Jane

    They turn it into slime with ammonia. Shit also comes out of your cows along with their blood and guts when you slaughter them. So save the BS about your beautiful cows because they are just cash registers to you and everyone knows it.

    Slime is the right word to describe your whole animal exploiting industry.

  • Keep up the great work Marion. My husband said it best, “it takes years for a big ship to turn its course” and the fact that “they” are on the defensive is awesome! Hopefully something positive will come of it for you personally and professionally.

    To the (ahem) industry bloggers: of course it’s 100% beef – it’s 100% beef scraps that I wouldn’t feed our family dog – let alone America’s school children.

    If it’s so safe and nutritious how come all your executives, congressmen/women along with the governors and their wives and children aren’t helping yourselves to a heaping bowl of some good ole’ cooked…served alone of course…not mixed in with the 100% beef…

    Common sense isn’t so common. – Voltaire

  • Adult baby food.

    Get a recipe book, switch on the radio and cook.

    That’s all I have to say, about that.

  • FarmerJane

    “Green”Consciousness I stand by my comments. I resent being called “slime” by you. We work hard to pay huge real estate taxes on several hundred acres of grasslands that could easily be split into subdivisions that have destroyed good land and wildlife habitat all around America. In addition to the herd of cows that we work with daily and have for a hundred years, we tend to the wildlife habitat that supports threatened species not found in the large lot subdivisions that surround us. Once we’re gone, they’re gone too. You obviously are very upset that a few farmers have found this blog. You find it so easy to slip into name calling.
    Looks like you of the ilk that rural Americans who work with animals are all evil animal abusers. And, how do you know what my cows are to me and what our lives have been? Freely calling rural Americans and farmers evil “slime” comes so easily to some, doesn’t it. One of the last bastions of American prejudices where Americans generations removed from the land feel absolutely and totally free to sneer and name call those of us who work with animals and the land.

  • Reason Required

    Finely textured lean beef, pink slime, or whatever you want to call it. If you eat a cow, at least have the decency to eat all of it with no waste. Think “pink slime” is yucky? A great solution: stop eating cows. No more pink slimy problems.

  • FarmerJane

    So what happens to the farms and rural America then, ReasonRequired? So what becomes of the grasslands, the rural areas where people earn their living? Don’t tell us to simply plow up the grasslands either. What’s your plan for rural America and rural counties whose economies are centered around farms and livestock? Or, in the greater scheme of things, are the rural people irrelevant to you? Let’s hear your plan.

  • NYFarmer

    Well, in the Northeast, its not so much the paving over, Michael, but its the abandonment of ag lands and rural poverty. For example, in NY we have about 3,000,000 acres now of grazing land that is abandoned, some divided into large lot subdivisions, others simply growing to scrub. Result here: empty main streets, farms falling down, young people leaving NY, rural poverty, devastated grassland ecosystems. I believe there is a growing number in NYC who are becoming interested in the natural resources around them and food security. Whether or not this interest will grow fast enough to stop the loss of NY’s working landscape remains to be seen.

  • Margeretrc

    If there’s any residue of ammonium hydroxide in the trimmings, then yes, it should be on the label. If not, it’s just beef that’s been exposed to ammonia (a gas) to kill germs. It would be so easy to just wash the treated trimmings with some acetic acid (main ingredient in vinegar), which will neutralize any ammonium hydroxide present, before mixing it in with everything else. Don’t understand what the big hullabaloo is. I’m not a fan of the big industrial beef (and other meat) producers, but I think we have a lot more serious things to battle than “pink slime”.

  • Very good points. Well written and well argued.

  • I have read the above comments with great interest. I respect the opinions of all. I am from the Siouxland area and have followed this issue with great interest and increasing distress. Last year our area was devastated by a 90 day flood. Now our economy is being threatened by a very negative catch phrase, Pink Slime. The flood could not be controlled, and perhaps this cannot be either. However, today over 10,000 people gathered in support of the Roths, BPI, and the entire cattle industry. BPI is not a non caring corporation, but a family business run on a day by day basis by the Roths who founded it almost 30 years ago. I do not know how much they donate to political campaigns, but I do know their generosity to their community which they have never publicized. When they had to close some of their plants, they guaranteed their employees 2 months of wages and benefits. In one day, for 2 months, they will write well over $190,000 in checks because they care about their employees. Not the actions of a greedy corporation.

    I will respond personally to Jack. We are a true melting pot in Siouxland. We have 4 reservations within 60 miles including the Winnebagos, the Omahas, the Yankton Sioux and the Santee. We also have large Asian and Hispanic communities, along with a growing Somalian community. Oh yes, we have a lot of Caucasians. BPI employs qualified people regardless of race. I need proof of your statement that 650 employees are illegals and the solution is to fire and deport them as they took the jobs in the first place due to BPI’s greed. If this is indeed true, you need to contact Immigration. I promise you that I personally will help them pack.

    I support all of you who do not want to eat LFTB products. I invite those of you who are interested in learning about “both sides” to go http://www.beef is beef. Please check the facts. Many foods are processed the ammonia including cheese and chocolate. Thank you.

  • Frank

    The problem I have with this is that pink slime was never listed as an ingredient — a couple of commenters noted this.

    What if BPI had injected pink slime into steaks and sold them in upscale restaurants without telling those diners there were additives in the steaks? Would there have been an outcry? You bet. But those complaints would have been considered legitimate.

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