DES MOINES - Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined Wednesday to defend a beef product known by its critics as "pink slime," calling the meat safe and nutritious.
Branstad and Vilsack said the product, sold by its maker as "lean, finely textured beef," has been unfairly maligned by the media, prompting a public uproar about how the meat is produced and then used in hamburger.
The concerns have led a number of supermarket chains to stop offering the meat and led its maker, South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc., to suspend operations at plants in Texas, Kansas and Iowa.
"I've said this hundreds of times," said Vilsack, a former two-term Democratic governor of Iowa. "This product is safe. There's no question about it. We've said that repeatedly and we'll continue to say it."
Branstad will join with other officials Thursday in South Sioux City, Neb., to tour the single Beef Products plant where the product is still made. He plans to eat some of the meat to demonstrate it's safe.
Under the system used to make what some have dubbed "pink slime," fatty bits of meat left over from other cuts are heated and spun to remove most of the fat. The lean mix then is compressed into blocks for use in ground meat. The product is exposed to ammonium hydroxide gas to kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.
"I believe the national media have permeated this issue with a poisonous tone that is detrimental to the beef industry," Branstad said.
Branstad said the process produces extremely lean beef that is healthier than regular cuts, making it a good choice for health-conscious consumers.
In response to complaints about its decision to remove the product, the West Des Moines-based grocery chain Hy-Vee said it will sell beef with and without the ingredient at its 235 stores.
Following questions about the product, the USDA announced it would offer schools a choice of taking 95 percent lean beef patties made with the filler or less lean bulk ground beef without it. The USDA this year is contracted to buy 111.5 million pounds of ground beef for the National School Lunch Program.
Earlier Wednesday, Branstad, along with the governors of Kansas, Nebraska and Texas as well as the lieutenant governor of South Dakota, issued a statement praising the meat product and urged supermarkets to again begin offering the beef. Failure to do so, they said, would lead to lost meat production jobs and higher prices.