The main producer of the lean beef trimmings that critics call "pink slime" has the support of its home base, but it may have a tougher time with consumers nationwide.
Several thousand people attended a picnic in Sioux City on Saturday (March 31) to support Beef Products Inc. and dine on hamburgers made with its beef.
In addition to that gathering - which was near the company's headquarters in Dakota Dunes, S.D. - several hundred people gathered near BPI's Kansas plant, which suspended production last week.
The company's product made from beef trimmings has drawn public scrutiny because of concerns about the ammonium hydroxide it uses to treat the meat, which the company says kills bacteria.
Critics say the "pink slime," a term coined by a federal microbiologist who was grossed out by the product, is an unappetizing example of industrialized food production.
The product meets federal food safety standards, and BPI says it is safe and has been used in ground beef for more than two decades.
The company suspended operations at its plants in Texas, Kansas and Iowa last week because of the controversy, affecting 650 jobs. The company's South Sioux City, NE, plant continues to produce the beef trimmings.
The company and industry groups have launched a campaign, including the website www.beefisbeef.com,
to defend the product that is officially known as "lean, finely textured beef."
But it's not clear whether it will be enough to win back consumers. Major grocers, such as Kroger, have stopped selling products that use the beef trimmings. And McDonald's Corp. announced last year that it would no longer use ammonia-treated beef.
In Kansas, the people who gathered in Garden City to support the company were also treated to hamburgers. BPI Quality Assurance Supervisor Eugene Martinez said he and his co-workers are calling politicians and business and using Facebook to combat the bad publicity.
"Hopefully we can calm the fears of families," he said. "The rally is just the beginning."
At Saturday's gathering at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, more than 15,000 people enjoyed hamburgers made with Beef Product's meat. Many wore t-shirts with the slogan "Dude, it's beef."
Sioux City resident Jose Lopez said he decided the company's products were safe after researching it online, so he brought his family to the picnic.
"I had heard BPI was injecting stuff that was not nutritious, but I learned it's not true," he said. "For me, it tastes good, it's healthy and it's real beef."
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and U.S. Rep. Steve King joined local officials at the picnic in support of the company. Last week, Branstad toured the company's Nebraska plant with governors from Kansas and Texas and lieutenant governors from Nebraska and South Dakota.
The Des Moines Register reported Saturday that over the past decade, the company's top executives and employees have given at least $546,500 to candidates for state office in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota and Texas
And Beef Product's owners Eldon and Regina Roth have given $274,250 to congressional and presidential candidates since 2008.
Nearly all of that $820,750 - except for $28,400 - went to Republicans.
Picnic-goers Tom and Debbie Mitchell of Sioux City said the company has been good to the area.
"They (BPI) have been good to our community, and we want to support them," Debbie Mitchell said. "I also happen to like their beef."