The local buzz on ‘pink slime’

Published 1:10 pm Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Jake Bos, meat-cutter for Knauer’s Meat Market, weighs hamburger Tuesday afternoon. -- Eric Johnson/

Consumers concerned about ‘pink slime’ filler

People ask Jake Bos every so often if the beef has any of that “pink slime” in it.

Though the question may be a little misled, he simply tells them, “No.” He doesn’t have to explain much more than that.

Ground beef sits, ready for packaging at Knauer’s Meat Market Tuesday afternoon.

Bos, a meat cutter at Knauer’s Meat market in Austin, freshly grinds all of the burger he encounters, except for a few larger pre-packaged tubes Knauer’s carries for customer convenience. Meat markets that grind their own beef are somewhat sidestepping the nationwide stir — for now — that last week caused major grocery stores to discontinue pre-packaged ground beef that contains finely textured trimmings being touted as “pink slime.”

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Midwest-based Hy-Vee foods announced last Thursday that it will no longer carry ground beef that has finely textured trimmings, a move consistent with Supervalu stores, Safeway, Food Lion and others.

Beef distributors have used finely textured trimmings to increase the lean content of beef for several decades; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture still approves the process, which separates fine bits of beef from fat and sterilizes them with a puff of ammonium hydroxide. The final product has the same nutritional content as beef. Regardless of its safety or nutritional value, though, people are now avoiding beef that contains finely textured trimmings.

“We heard from a large number of customers that it’s a product they did not want to buy,” said Ruth Comer, Hy-Vee’s assistant vice president of media relations, who added media outlets have only added to the buzz with extensive use of the term “pink slime” and pictures to accompany it.

“So what we try to do as a retailer is listen to our customers and provide them with what they want to buy,” she added. “We have no qualms about the safety of the product. This is strictly a move that is made in response to customer feedback.”

Schools are making that same move, as well.

According to Mary Weikum, food and nutrition services director for Austin Public Schools, the district will switch its stock to beef that’s free of finely textured trimmings when a supply becomes available. Weikum is certain that most, if not all, schools will make that change.

“I would be surprised if most didn’t say, ‘You know, we don’t want this,’” she said.


Like grocers, schools are making the change because it’s inevitably what customers are going to want, especially given the recent hysteria.

Though Weikum, Comer and others have strongly indicated they trust the USDA’s words, that may have no bearing on consumers. So retailers and food services are going to make the switch.

“Let’s be honest, we want our customers and our families to be confident that we are giving good, quality food,” Weikum said.

While local Hy-Vee associates could not comment on the issue, some grocers said they haven’t yet noticed much of a fluctuation in sales. Bos has not noticed more people purchasing ground beef from Knauers. At Jim’s Marketplace in Austin, owner Jim Baldus doesn’t have a lot to say about “pink slime” either. He also freshly grinds all of his beef.

“No,” Baldus said about being worried about finely textured trimmings.

“Because we grind all of our own. We don’t buy any pre-pack. No, we’re not even worried about it.”

One thing both consumers and retailers may soon notice, however, is all-around, more expensive meat. Because the fine textured trimmings create a lean product at less cost, beef without that filler will be the more expensive option.

“The ground beef that does not contain lean, finely textured beef is more expensive, so we don’t know a price at this point or how much more expensive it’s going to be (in stores),” Comer said.

Furthermore, Beef Products Inc. — the company that makes the filler — announced Monday it will suspend operations at its plants in Texas, Kansas and Iowa, with one remaining open in South Dakota. Craig Letch, the company’s director of food safety and quality assurance, hopes that move will allow consumers time to realize the product is safe. But timing may not be on Letch’s side.

“This comes at a time for the beef industry where beef prices are rising anyway,” Comer said about the “pink slime” buzz, and added discontinued use of finely textured beef could call for more than a million extra slaughtered cattle to cover the loss in production.

At Knauer’s, Bos has already noticed increased lean ground beef costs — as much as 30 to 40 cents since the beginning of the year. He hopes people continue to pay for what he knows is quality meat, free of any fillers.

“We’re pretty fussy about the beef we order,” he said. “Hopefully people will come down here. At $3.29 and $3.69 a pound, it’s pretty reasonable.”

Hormel Foods Corp. responded that it doesn’t harvest beef and does not procure raw materials treated with ammonium hydroxide, and the company supports the use of new technologies that enhance consumer eating experiences and improve food safety.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.