Thursday, March 29, 2012

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack: 'Pink Slime' Is Crucial To Combating Child Obesity

Secretary travels to Iowa for press conference to affirm safety of lean, finely textured beef; notes that it's in the National School Lunch Program because it's cheap; and says product doesn't require labeling because it's "safe"...
Though the White House does not serve it on its menus, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack traveled to Des Moines, Iowa on Wednesday to join Governor Terry Branstad for a special press conference to defend the safety of "lean, finely textured beef," aka "Pink Slime." The subject of a national firestorm of negative media attention, Vilsack and Branstad reaffirmed the safety of the cheap, chemically treated ground beef filler, following the Monday announcement by the producer, Beef Products Inc. (BPI), that it is closing three of its four production facilities due to a drop in demand. (Above: Vilsack and Branstad at the presser)

Vilsack made the argument that the product is crucial to fighting childhood obesity, the signature initiative of First Lady Michelle Obama.

"This product is safe," Vilsack said. "There's no question about it. We've said that hundreds of times and we'll continue to say it."

"We're here today to stand together to clear up some misinformation that's been circulated in the media about lean, finely textured beef produced by BPI," said Branstad, a Republican who has received much attention from the White House. He branded media coverage as "a smear campaign."

"Concern over the safety of this product is simply unfounded," Branstad said.

Let's Move! and beef filler...
Vilsack himself helped fuel consumer fears and the media frenzy over the product by announcing last week that USDA will make it possible for school districts to opt out of purchasing ground beef containing the product. But he said on Wednesday that USDA would never have allowed the product in the school lunch program if it were not safe, and said it is a "leaner product" than regular ground beef, and crucial for the battle to end childhood obesity.

"That's one of the reasons we've made it a staple of the school lunch program," Vilsack said.

"We are...concerned about obesity levels, and this is an opportunity for us to ensure that youngsters are receiving a product that is lean and contains less fat."

He also noted that "historically" the product is less expensive than other products.

"For that reason it's been part of the school lunch program," Vilsack said.

He defended his opt-out program decision, noting that USDA had received “hundreds” of messages from school districts, and adding that the Agency believes in "consumer choice." 32 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program.  About 17% of American children are obese.

An impact on all of US agriculture....
Both Vilsack and Branstad said meat buyers should make their decisions based on science, noting that the product is safe, low in fat and a cheap ingredient. Branstad and his family have eaten the product for more than three decades, he said, and noted that it is “100 percent beef.” It's safer than beef that's not treated with ammonia, Branstad said, something critics dispute. Indeed, "Pink Slime" may be 100 percent beef, but it is made of beef fat and trimmings, and treated with ammonia gas designed to kill harmful bacteria, including E. Coli and salmonella.

Branstad blamed a “poisonous tone” in the media for consumer rejection of the product, which has included major supermarket chains, including Safeway and Hy-Vee announcing they will not carry meat containing the product. Hy-Vee has now revesred its decision, Branstad said.

He warned that Americans rejecting lean, finely textured beef will "effect all of Agriculture," by causing a decline in sales of corn and soy. "There's a ripple effect," Branstad said.

Vilsack agreed, warning that exports could be impacted. The US Ag sector is currently one of the strongest parts of the economy.

No labeling is necessary, and a plant visit by FSIS chief...
Today, Vilsack is sending Agriculture Undersecretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen to tour the Beef Products Inc. plant in South Sioux City, Neb., with Branstad and other governors, to again affirm the safety of the product.

"She's an MD," Vilsack said of Hagen, adding that "she's a mother of two small children, too."

Vilsack also said that lean, finely textured beef doesn't have to be labeled when it is included in ground beef because "it is safe."

Vilsack's last effort to defend a specific American food product came in 2009, during the outbreak of swine flu, when Americans stopped eating pork amidst worries that it would make them ill with the fatal virus, and the swine industry saw a rapid decline in sales. Vilsack assured the nation that he was consuming plenty of pork, and urged media to stop using the term "swine flu," instead demanding that it be called by its clinical name, H1N1 flu. He noted this effort during the press conference.

Somewhat disappointingly, the Secretary's efforts to defend lean, finely textured beef did not include him digging into a plate of the product and eating it on camera.

*Photo by Darin Leach/USDA