'Pink Slime' Defense Rises

Agriculture Secretary, Farm-State Governors Want Supermarkets to Use Filler

By BILL TOMSON And MARK PETERS

It turns out not everyone hates pink slime.

After being pummeled in the media for weeks, the beef additive made from leftover trimmings is getting support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the governors of five states, who argue it has been unfairly labeled and is actually a safe, low-cost way to make ground beef leaner.

"This is an unwarranted, unmerited food scare," said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who, along with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and representatives of several other states, has vowed to consume the product themselves after touring a plant where it is made on Thursday. "If there was some basis in fact to this, other than somebody's clever naming of it, then you'd say 'no you shouldn't stick your neck out on it.'"

The additive, which has long been used as a cheap filler in hamburger meat without anyone knowing or caring, has become the latest example of a product to fall prey to a social-media feeding frenzy after celebrity chef Jamie Oliver detailed how it is made in a TV special. Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites took it from there. Supermarkets and school districts across the country have been shunning it after mounting public pressure.

Supporters say taking the product out of the U.S. food chain will lead to higher beef prices and fattier hamburger, since it is very low in fat.

"You effectively need to kill 1.5 million more head of cattle in a year to replace the meat that would go off the market from this unwarranted, unmerited food scare," Gov. Branstad said. "That's why we're pushing back on it."

"We have said all along, and have been saying for weeks, this product is safe," USDA chief Tom Vilsack said in a news conference Wednesday.

The USDA chief is dispatching a top federal food safety official, Under Secretary Elisabeth Hagen, Thursday to a facility that produces the additive in South Sioux City, Neb. Several governors also will attend the event as they pressure supermarkets to return ground beef with the filler to refrigerator cases.

"We're going to consume it," Gov. Branstad said. "We'll do everything we can to set the record straight."

Known in the industry as lean finely textured beef, the additive is made from scraps remaining after cattle are butchered into cuts such as steaks and roasts. Processors remove the fat from trimmings, and in some cases treat the meat for bacteria with ammonium hydroxide. The product is then mixed with ground beef, often making it leaner, according to Beef Products Inc., a major producer.

The filler has been used for nearly two decades and the U.S. Department of Agriculture says it is safe. Still, that hasn't kept supermarket chains such as Kroger Co., Safeway Inc. and Supervalu Inc. from phasing out the additive. The decision caught state and federal officials off guard and led Beef Products to suspend production at plants in Amarillo, Texas; Garden City, Kan.; and Waterloo, Iowa.

Support for the product, particularly in states where the beef filler is produced, helped persuade Midwest supermarket chain Hy-Vee Inc. to back off its original plan to completely phase it out. The chain will now offer ground beef with and without the filler. The decision came after Hy-Vee, which has 235 retail stores, received hundreds of calls both for and against the filler, said Ruth Comer, a spokeswoman for the supermarket chain.

Those who have oppose the additive say consumers have already decided on the product.

"This is so clearly a movement that's been driven by consumers," said Willy Ritch, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D., Maine), who is pushing for a ban of the filler in school lunches.

Mr. Vilsack pointed to the difficulty of getting ahead of opposition to a product—even if it is deemed safe by the government—in a world fueled by social media. He also highlighted a disconnect that continues to grow between people and where their food comes from.

"The reality is a very small percentage of America's population produces 85% to 90% of what we consume," Mr. Vilsack said.

Article Written By BILL TOMSON And MARK PETERS of the Wall Street Journal.

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—Ian Berry contributed to this article.