The beef industry is fighting back against a public backlash over a ground beef product that critics have termed "pink slime."
Beef Products Inc., the main manufacturer and inventor of the filler, suspended production at three of four plants on Monday. At the same time, they are waging a public-relations campaign to convince consumers that the product is not harmful and is essential to the industry.
Grass-roots pressure on the product formed after reports were featured on various news outlets. Last year, chef Jamie Oliver explored the issue in an episode of his ABC show, "Jaime Oliver's Food Revolution." The opposition intensified when photos of what looked like pink toothpaste spread across social media sites with claims that it was the pink slime; it was not.
An online petition asking the USDA to stop the use of the product in school lunches got more than 250,000 signatures since the beginning of March. In response, the USDA told school districts that they don't have to use the products in their school lunch programs.
This various campaigns have presented a problem for the beef industry.
"We are trying to put out factual information and hopefully educate people," says Jeremy Russell, a spokesman for the National Meat Association. "If our consumers aren't willing to buy it, there is only so much we can do."
What the beef industry calls "lean finely textured beef" (LFTB) and critics call "pink slime" is a filler byproduct that is made by running scraps from meat cuttings through a processor that removes the fat from the trimmings. The beef is usually treated with ammonia to kill bacteria such as E. Coli and salmonella, a process that has been a subject of suspicion and debate despite claims that it is harmless.
According to Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and public at New York University, the substance is safe but still raises issues.
"It is not dangerous at all. The question is whether it's socially acceptable," says Ms. Nestle. "Humans don't usually eat byproducts. Just because it's safe doesn't mean it's acceptable."
Nestle thinks that the product should be labeled so that consumers can decide.
LFTB is found in retail ground beef, low-fat hotdogs, lunch meat, beef sticks, pepperoni, frozen entrees, meatballs, and canned foods. Until early this year, fast food chains such as McDonald's, Taco Bell, and Burger King used the filler in their beef products.
Industry experts estimate that around 850 million pounds of the filler are used each year, which means that if consumers won't tolerate it, the industry will have to find another product to use.
"It can have a ripple effect economically," says Mr. Russell of the National Meat Association.
Companies that produce LFTB have been employing PR strategies, although some wonder whether it is too late.
"They are way late on the story. They need Public Relations training," says Nestle.
Beef Products Inc., took out a full page advertisement in The Wall Street Journal last week to make a case for LFTB. The ad featured a statement on the economic impact by Beef Products Inc. founder Eldon Roth.
"It is simply amazing how this mis-information campaign can take a company and product that has long been recognized for its quality and safety and turn the public perception so negative that it now may result in the loss of over 3,000 jobs (direct employment and companies that rely upon our business) and affected their families and communities," wrote Mr. Roth.
The ad also featured a letter from a woman named Nancy Donley, the founder and President of STOP Foodborne Illness. Ms. Donley wrote about her child, who died from E. Coli, and defended Beef Products Inc.'s record when it comes to food safety.
Beef Products Inc. has started a blog called "beef is beef" to defend itself and challenge the notion of "pink slime."
But a lot may be in the name.
"The name pink slime is really just a hopeless PR problem," says Ms. Nestle.