August 30, 2014

USDA responds to Grassley’s comments on closing of beef processing plants

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking issue with comments Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley made regarding the closing of three plants that produced the lean finely textured beef product (LFTB). In a conference call with reporters Monday, the Republican Senator said the U.S.D.A. and FDA were partly to blame for the closings, because they didn’t defend the product after it had been labeled “pink slime” on a network TV program.

Grassley said, “They immediately said hot lunch programs didn’t have to purchase it and so that sent a signal if it wasn’t good enough for the hot lunch program, it wasn’t good enough for this supermarket and that supermarket and they all jumped on board.” U.S.D.A. communications director, Matt Paul doesn’t agree with the senator.

“You know, we were very disappointed that Senator Grassley made that characterization. From the first discussion of this in the national news, U.S.D.A. was very strong in pointing out the safety record of LFTB. And in fact, at the pinnacle of this public discussion, the company cited U.S.D.A.’s support for the product,” Paul says.

As for the school lunch program, Paul says the U.S.D.A. does what Senator Grassley does, and was listening to its customers. He says they had four staff members dedicated to answering concerns about LTFB.

“All we said was that schools have a choice if they don’t want to receive this product, we on behalf of them, sort of their wholesaler, are simply making a case based on their concerns until there’s some greater public understanding of LFTB, that we would give district the option,” according to Paul.

“But again, it was based on a consistent message about the safety of this product.” Beef Products Incorporated suspended operations at three plants that make LFTB during the debate over its safety, and then announced Monday the closings were permanent.

Paul points out that Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack was one of the officials who appeared with Iowa’s governor and those from other states to support LFTB at the one production plant that remained open. “We dispatched our top food safety expert on this to make an appearance with the five governors in South Sioux City to talk about the safety of the product. So, the U.S.D.A. consistently touted the safety of this product,” Paul says.

“Our heart goes out to these impacted workers. It’s a sad situation, but not a situation that’s going to benefit from Washington finger pointing,” Paul says. The closing of the Waterloo plant means the loss of 220 jobs. Vilsack is a Democrat and former Iowa governor.