U.S. beef processor shuts plants over “pink slime”

Beef Products Inc., the top producer of ammonia-treated beef product dubbed "pink slime" by critics, said Monday it had halted production at three of its four plants in three states for 60 days from Monday.

Rich Jochum, corporate administrator for the South Dakota-based company, said that the temporary closure could become "a permanent suspension."

"This is a direct reaction to all the misinformation about our lean beef," Jochum told Reuters.

The company shut down operations on Monday at its plants in Amarillo, Tex.; Finney County, Kan.; and Waterloo, Iowa. As of Monday afternoon, the company was still informing employees in Iowa about the closure.

Two of the biggest U.S. supermarket operators, Safeway and Supervalu, have said they will stop buying the ammonia-treated beef.

Also known as lean finely textured beef, the product has drawn criticism from food activists. McDonald’s stopped using USDA-approved ammonia-treated meat in its hamburger products last summer.

Altogether, the plants employ 650 people. The company’s facilities in Iowa and Kansas produce approximately 350,000 pounds of product a day, while the Texas plant puts out nearly 200,000 pounds.

The company’s largest plant, based in South Sioux City, Neb., will remain open and in operation, Jochum said. Before Monday’s closures, BPI employed nearly 1,500 people at its plants and its headquarters in Dakota Dunes, S.D.

The closures are because of the recent outcry by food activists over its lean finely textured beef, Jochum said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and industry experts say the meat was safe to eat. But critics, who argue that the product may be dangerous, say such meat products are an example of how the nation’s large-scale food producers use industrialized practices that are unappealing.

"The demand in the market will hopefully resume," Jochum said.

Live cattle futures at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange shrugged off news of the plant closures, but traders have been closely monitoring developments for signs if there would be any impact on demand for beef.

"If they stop using that it’s going to take more cows per burger. So if anything it has a bullish tint to it," said Domenic Varricchio, a commodities broker at Schwieterman, Inc., implying that higher quality beef may be used for hamburger.

"If not safer"

BPI, founded in 1981, began as a processor of frozen beef products. In 2001, the company emerged as a key player in the nation’s ground beef industry after federal regulators approved the firm’s process of using ammonia in the beef processing to remove foodborne pathogens such as salmonella and E.coli O157:H7.

The product is made out of scraps and fatty trimmings that, for years, typically had been sold off to make pet food or cooking oils because it was too difficult to remove the meat and was somewhat susceptible to contamination.

In general, BPI uses a heat and centrifuge process to melt the fat, collect and mash the meat, and spray ammonia hydroxide on it to remove possible bacteria and pathogens. The final product — which is formed into blocks, frozen and shipped in boxes — is relatively low in fat and often used as a cheap filler.

"Hamburger is not a completely safe product, but the BPI product is as safe, if not safer, than other parts of hamburger," said Seattle-based food safety lawyer William Marler. "BPI has gotten crushed by public sentiment that this stuff is icky."

Concern and questions over BPI and its product have been raised in the media for years, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of stories written by the New York Times in 2009. The current debate, which has been brewing for months, began after British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver drew attention to the practice.

— Additional reporting for Reuters by Meredith Davis and Theopolis Waters

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