Beef Products Inc., which turns fatty beef trimmings into a lean beef product that ends up in ground beef, announced today it is suspending operations at three of its four plants. But a company spokesman says the fatty trimmings that safety experts admit can harbor pathogens will still end up in the ground beef supply.
A month ago, few people outside the food industry had ever heard of BPI, a company headquartered in Dakota Dunes, S.D., that has become a major supplier of lean finely textured beef to fast food outlets, the National School Lunch Program, and retail grocers around the country.
But that all changed once a petition to remove the product from school lunches drew hundreds of thousands of signatures in early March. Disgust over "pink slime," a term first coined by a U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist who toured a BPI plant in 2002, quickly splattered into social media channels and news outlets until the company could not escape the sticky stain.
Though it is not the country's only producer of lean finely textured beef, BPI found itself alone in the spotlight, battling information from former employees-turned-whistleblowers and internal documents asserting that its product was responsible for E. coli and other dangerous microbes detected in ground beef.
Earlier this month, USDA responded to the anti-pink slime fervor with a pledge to allow schools buying for the free and reduced lunch program to choose between meat that contained lean beef trimmings and meat that did not.
And then last week, several retailers, including Safeway and Wal-Mart, said they would offer beef without the de-fatted trimmings.
The company, meanwhile, stands behind the safety of its product, calling the pink slime brouhaha a series of "unfounded and misguided attacks." "We have complete confidence in our raw materials and our testing," Rich Jochum, a BPI spokesman, tells The Salt.
Jochum admits that testing is necessary because "you will randomly and infrequently have pathogens associated with [trimmings]." But now that BPI will be processing a much smaller fraction of the available trimmings, he says, "tomorrow those raw materials are going to go directly into ground beef. They're not going to be tested in the same way we test them."
While parents, wary consumers, fast food outlets and retailers have backed away from lean finely textured beef, the company still does have a number of defenders, mainly in the food science world.
Several meat scientists have tried to assure the public that BPI's product is safe, if not safer than other components of lean beef, though those assurances have mainly fallen on deaf ears. Edward Mills, associate professor of dairy and animal science at Penn State, said in a statement, "From a microbial-pathogen point of view, the product has a better reputation than straight ground beef."
Mills and other defenders say removing LFTB from ground beef won't make it any safer. "You would not reduce the occurrence of E. coli 0157:H7 or Salmonella in ground beef," Mills said. "In fact, it would be just the opposite."
In what seemed like last-ditch effort to assert the safety of its product, the company took out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, republished by Eater.com.
But that came after several retailers, one by one, said they wouldn't buy beef that contained the product. And meanwhile, a handful of school districts, including Boston's, have also begun phasing out ground beef with BPI's product, months before the USDA will make it easier for them to avoid it.