WATERLOO, Iowa --- With a firestorm of negative publicity drying up sales of its lean beef, Beef Products Inc. on Monday suspended operations at three of its four plants, and 220 jobs may be lost in Waterloo.
The Dakota Dunes, S.D., company suspended operations at its Waterloo plant on North Elk Run Road and at facilities in Amarillo, Texas, and Garden City, Kan. Employees will get full salaries and benefits for 60 days.
BPI President and CEO Eldon Roth delivered the bad news to Waterloo workers at 2:45 p.m.
The moves come on the heels of a social media frenzy in the past two weeks that has cost the company a “substantial” portion of its business.
Roth blamed misinformation and an unfair name — “pink slime” — coined by a former government employee.
After the meeting, about two dozen employees met with the media to praise the company and counter the unflattering portrayals of the product they make.
“It was shocking and heartbreaking for most people. I’m here to fight for them,” said Admira Miskic, a BPI production worker for nearly two years. “We’re trying to save our jobs. We don’t make pink slime.”
BPI makes what the industry calls “lean, finely textured beef,” extracted from beef trimmings and treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria like E. coli. LFTB is up to 97 percent fat-free and mixed with ground beef and other products.
LFTB is also known as “pink slime,” a phrase first used by a U.S. Department of Agriculture official several years ago because of its texture and color and later picked up by the national media.
BPI officials say the misinformation in the media the past few months has tainted perceptions of consumers.
Sales of LFTB plunged recently because of negative publicity, BPI officials said. The product is deemed safe by the USDA, and no public health problems have ever been attributed to it. But critics say it it is an unappetizing example of industrialized food production.
Craig Letch, director of food safety and quality assurance at BPI, said that can’t be further from the truth. BPI officials and employees are trying to set the record straight, he said, and get the plants reopened.
“Our product is 100 percent beef, and that’s what consumers need to understand. It’s not a filler,” Letch said. “We’re not a additive, but a lean beef source. ... The best we can do is to get the truth out.”
But Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, said there are other considerations.
“If this is acceptable to people, it essentially means it’s OK to eat the kind of stuff we put into pet food,” she said. “Culturally we don’t eat byproducts of human food production. It’s not in our culture. Other cultures do. We don’t.”
History on BPI’s side
Letch said the company has been selling LFTB for more than 30 years. The process has improved over time with technological advancements. Trimmings from steaks, roasts and other cuts are heated and put in a centrifuge. Spun at a high rate, meat is separated from the fat. The beef is then boxed and sold.
Backlash from consumers, though, forced major supermarket and restaurant chains — such as McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, Food Lion, Supervalu and Hy-Vee — to quit buying LFTB. At its peak, BPI made nearly 1 million pounds a day, which was found in an estimated 70 percent of the nation’s ground beef.
Late last week, Hy-Vee announced it would stop buying LFTB due to customer calls.
“Hy-Vee will continue to listen and respond to their concerns, just as our company has been doing for more than 80 years,” the company said in a news release.
Changing public perception about “pink slime” will determine whether plant closures become permanent. Letch said the facilities will reopen when enough orders are received.
“At the end of the day its about educating consumers,” Letch said. “I wish I could say it will be easy. But the level of media inaccuracies and (scare tactics) ... caused us to travel to three facilities and look employees in the eye and say we have to suspend production.
“It will be a long road to (gain) trust back,” he continued.
Road to recovery
BPI on Monday took out full-page ads in newspapers around the country — including The Courier — to tell its side of the story. In the ad, Roth said the smear campaign by the national media and activists may result in the loss of more than 3,000 jobs — BPI employees and workers at associated companies.
Local BPI workers are optimistic the plant will reopen, calling the shutdown an unexpected “vacation.” Employees said they will do whatever they can to get back to work.
“Nobody cleaned their lockers out; that’s how much faith we have,” said Andrea Williams, a raw materials coordinator for nine years from Dunkerton.
Co-worker Jamie Puckett of Waterloo, a quality assurance inspector at BPI for 15 years, said the company’s product is of the highest quality. Her mission is to tell the public just that, she said.
“I couldn’t consciously work there if I didn’t feel it was safe. I proudly serve it to my grandchildren,” Puckett said. “Everything is tested over and over again.”
The 20,000-square-foot BPI plant, adjacent to the Tyson Fresh Meats’ hog slaughtering and processing facility, opened in 1993. Originally built to process pork trimmings, the plant switched primarily to beef two years later due to market conditions. It is capable of processing 350,000 pounds of beef a day.
The Greater Cedar Valley Alliance & Chamber is ready to help the company and its workers. CEO Steve Dust said the announcement is a blow to the community, and he hopes the closure is short-lived.
“Obviously it will have a big impact right away. But the company is stepping up to make it as good for employees as it can,” Dust said. “Still, when a suspension causes displacement of workers, that’s detrimental to the regional economy.”
If needed, Dust said the alliance will work with the state and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 431, which represents most of BPI’s local employees, finding work. Setting up job fairs and training opportunities at Hawkeye Community College are possibilities, Dust said.
Luckily, Dust said employment opportunities in the region are good.
“I’m pretty optimistic they will find other employment if necessary,” he said.
Local 431 President Jerry Messer blames outside forces, not BPI, for plant’s temporary closure.
However, Messer isn’t necessarily counting on it reopening any time soon. He said hours and staff have been cut back for months as orders declined.
“It’s pretty hard to beat the news media that created a monster,” Messer said. “They lost Taco Bell, McDonalds and it mushroomed. If there’s no customers, there’s no customers. ... It’s not good for Waterloo.”
Dust said people making false comments about LFTB and calling it “pink slime” didn’t think about the consequences, like job loss and economic hardship.
Tom Poe, president of Crystal Distribution in Waterloo, said the misinformation ruined a good company. Crystal has stored and shipped all local BPI products for 20-plus years.
Poe said losing a major client will hurt, but Crystal will survive. He called BPI a leader in food safety.
“It’s just a travesty,” Poe said. “Any time you use the work ‘slime’ it’s a slap across the face. Our hope is to get the facts out.”