Last year at this time, employees of Beef Products Incorporated in Sioux City were bracing for a major flood on the Missouri River, now they’re battling a man-made disaster, one from which they may never recover. The South Sioux City plant is the only one still open and making what’s know as “lean finely textured beef” (LFTB) after a national controversy where critics called the product “pink slime.”
BPI officials say the drop in demand linked to the controversy led them to permanently close plants in Waterloo, Amarillo, Texas and Garden City, Kansas. The shut down of plants has impacted workers like Nick Flach, who’s been at the Waterloo plant for five years.
Flach credits BPI with helping him mature from an entry level employee to lead systems engineer. “For me it’s been such a journey, a learning experience and journey, and it’s not for the faint of heart because of all the hours and stuff, but it’s for passionate people with strong work ethics,” Flach says. “And even just talking about it right now it just makes me sad — I feel like I want to tear up talking about it, ’cause it’s just a sad thing.”
Flach has developed skills to help him find another job, but many of co-workers don’t possess his skills — and some of them barely speak English. That’s where Jeanie Wright, the director for Workforce Development at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo comes in. Her office has applied for a federal grant that will be administered by the state for English as a Second Language instruction.
“The company told me that 30% of the workers speak Bosnian, 20% of the workers are Spanish speakers. So, with the early intervention grant we will be able to apply for up to 20-thousand dollars and we are hoping to offer ESL classes here on site,” Wright says. Along with ESL language instruction, Wright says displaced workers will also get help fine tuning their resume and get some practice doing interviews.
A technique that’s probably changed over the past 10 or 15 years since they were first hired. The technique used to manufacture lean, finely textured beef will also become a lost art in about ten days. And even though some believe any food that needs to be treated with ammonia does not belong on our plate, the FDA says the product made from beef trimmings is safe and has been for decades.
BPI food safety director, Craig Letch, says the company welcomes anyone with concerns to come and see for themselves. “I want to make sure everybody understands, that as a company we pride ourselves in letting people into our facilities and letting people see what we do,” Letch says.
He says they have everyone from consumer groups to people who have lost relatives due to food-borne illness into their plants to help them better understand what they do. Many large grocery stores continue to carry LFTB in the meat case and it’s on the school lunch menu all across the state.