SOUTH SIOUX CITY, Neb. — Governors of three states got up close with "pink slime" Thursday, touching and examining treated beef at a plant and eating hamburgers made with it in a bid to persuade grossed-out consumers and grocery stores the product is safe to consume.
The governors and two lieutenant governors spent about half an hour learning about the process of creating finely textured lean beef in a tour of the main plant that makes the product, then blasted the media for scaring consumers with a moniker coined by critics.
"If you called it finely textured lean beef, would we be here?" asked Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
Beef Products, the main producer of the cheap lean beef made from fatty bits of meat left over from other cuts, has drawn scrutiny over concerns about the ammonium hydroxide it uses to change the beef's acidity and kill bacteria. The company suspended operations at plants in Texas, Kansas and Iowa this week, affecting 650 jobs, but defends its product as safe.
The politicians — Brownback, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Nebraska Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy and South Dakota Lt. Gov. Matt Michels — all agree that the beef has been unfairly maligned and mislabeled and issued a joint statement earlier saying the product is safe.
The officials donned hard hats, hairnets and goggles for a walking tour through the facility. Afterward, Perry, Branstad and others ate burgers made from the plant's meat at a news conference.
Russell Cross, a former administrator of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, said the product is getting a bad rap from a food safety standpoint.
The finished product contains only a trace of ammonia, as do many other foods, and it's meant just to be an additional "hurdle for the pathogens," said Cross, who is now head of the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University.
The ammonium hydroxide BPI uses is also used in baked goods, puddings and other processed foods.
National Meat Association spokesman Jeremy Russell said if consumers insist on eliminating the product from ground beef, prices will go up and lean beef trimmings will have to be imported to replace it.
The real test may come later this year when school districts buy meat from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for next school year. The USDA said it would give school districts a choice between 95 percent lean beef that contains pink slime and less-lean beef without it.