Maine congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s efforts to ban processed lean beef trimmings, otherwise known as “pink slime,” from schools, has led to the closure of three factories in the Midwest, with 650 people losing their jobs.
The food product, which is comprised of “finely textured lean beef trimmings” and treated to remove any potential diseases, is added to other beef products and processed meats as inexpensive beef fillers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of beef trimmings for human consumption.
Representative Pingree has been the leading voice in congress for a recent campaign that resurrected a term coined ten years ago in 2002, calling the meat product “pink slime” a reference to its color and texture. ABC News reported that as much as 70 percent of ground beef products in grocery stores contain the product and school luncheons contained the beef trimmings as well.
Pingree’s fervent campaign against the so-called “pink slime” has led the United States Department of Agriculture, the department in charge of food in public schools, to allow schools to stop using lean beef trimmings, despite the Agriculture Secretary’s own statement that, “without any equivocation, this product is safe, and there’s no question about it.”
The additional public uproar caused by Pingree’s campaign against the product has led to many grocery stores and restaurants pulling the product from their shelves.
As a result, three plants in the Midwest are closing. Beef Products Inc., one of the primary producers of the inexpensive beef product, says they will be forced to shut down locations in Iowa, Kansas and Texas as a result of the negative campaign against them. 650 workers will be out of jobs, the company reports.
Pingree’s campaign against the beef product began in mid-March, when she wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging the department to stop allowing its use in school lunches.
Pingree then recruited many of her fellow colleagues in congress to sign on to a follow-up letter to the Agriculture Secretary a week later urging the complete ban of the beef product in schools. Pingree was able to secure the signatures of 40 fellow members of congress, including Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Dennis Kucinich.
As a result of Pingree’s efforts and the uproar the negative campaign created, the Department of Agriculture has decided that schools can stop using the product, and many stores have pulled it from their shelves as well.
Now it appears that these 650 jobs will be lost due to a controversy that is not based in fact.
In a recent report, Benjamin England, Founder and CEO of FDA consulting firm said that, “The public’s recent outcry to have ‘pink slime’ removed from grocery store ground meat comes from gross-out images on the internet and not from any substantial food safety concerns.”
Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, testified before congress on March 29th, (video linked and below) that the product, “is beef and it is safe, and it has got less fat,” a fact that Pingree and others have chosen to ignore. “I can’t tell you how many times USDA, myself, Dr. Hagen (Undersecretary for Food Safety), and other members of the Food Safety and Inspection Service family have been quoted or alluded to…about the safety of this product,” Vilsack said. “If they make that choice, they [should] make it based on the facts, and that they’re not making it on the assumption and belief that this product is unsafe because it is not.”
The message out of Pingree’s office is a message based on anecdote, with no hard evidence that there is something unsafe about the beef product. “There is only one word for this product: gross,” Pingree said in a statement. Pingree added in her letter that the USDA should ban the beef because, “McDonald’s and Burger King have stopped using [the product] in their food.”
A negative campaign based in anecdotes has led to a harsh fact for at least 650 Americans – they have lost their jobs.
Iowa Governor Terry Branstand knows this all too well, as the leader of one of the states with a production plant impacted by the negative campaign against beef trimmings. “This is a sad day for the state of Iowa,” Branstad told ABC News. “The fact that a false, misleading smear campaign can destroy a company’s reputation overnight should disturb us all.”
The job-killing effects of a negative campaign against a specific food product might especially concern Mainers. Maine’s economy relies heavily on animal based food products, like lobster and fish. Is it possible someone in congress could decide that processed fish are “gross” and “unsafe” and lead a movement against those products?
The campaign against lean beef trimmings suggests it’s possible.
When asked about her campaign against the beef product, Pingree’s office said, “The decline in popularity of pink slime has been driven by consumers and private companies like McDonalds and Burger King who made the decision to stop using the additive even before it became a big story in the news. Congresswoman Pingree introduced a bill that would require labeling of products containing pink slime (not banning them) because she believes consumers have the right to know what they are buying so that they can make informed decisions.”
Pingree did call for bans of the product however, at least via Twitter. In a March 14th tweet Pingree said, “Just asked feds to ban pink slime in schools. Only 1 word to describe it: gross.”
She also asked Secretary Vilsack in her March 14th letter to, “do everything in your power to eliminate it from school lunch programs around the country.”
In April, Pingree told MPBN reporter Tom Porter, “I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with the product.”
One thing is sure – 650 newly unemployed Americans will have good reason to have a beef with Chellie Pingree.