* Republican governors watch automated production process
* Say campaign against 'pink slime' unwarranted scare
SOUTH SIOUX CITY, Neb., March 29 (Reuters) - A maker of the hamburger filler branded by critics as "pink slime" on Thursday allowed three state governors supportive of the U.S. beef industry and a handful of journalists to see it being made for the first time since a controversy erupted over use of the meat scraps.
Beef Products Inc, the leading producer of the filler the industry calls "finely textured beef," opened its meat plant in South Sioux City, Nebraska, in a remote area straddling Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota.
The tour was part of an effort by the beef industry to fight consumer activists who have successfully campaigned to ban the beef filler from most supermarkets, fast food and school lunches.
The three Republican governors - Rick Perry of Texas, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Terry Branstad on Iowa - wore hard hats and white coats and munched on hamburgers during the visit.
They said the campaign against "pink slime" was an unwarranted food scare.
"When we have these false rumors that get started, they have the potential to take down an entire company. That really hits close to home," Perry said, adding that 650 workers had been idled by the controversy, including 300 at a meat plant in Texas.
After being shown the examples of the fat-laden scraps up to 8 inches ( 20 cm) l ong in an adjacent conference room, the tour entered the gleaming plant, where workers kept watch on the automated process that churned out pink 60-pound (27 -kg) blo cks of the textured filler.
A reporter on the tour described the product as about as red as typical ground beef but with a less-coarse texture. The filler, which the industry says is 98 percent lean, is mixed in to make the beef sold on store shelves leaner.
The tour was organized as hundreds of U.S. school districts demanded the beef filler be removed from school lunch programs, and the three largest U.S. supermarket chains halted purchases of beef containing the filler. A regional grocery chain, Hy-Vee Inc, said it reversed a ban and would sell beef with and without the filler.
McDonald's Corp stopped using hamburgers with the filler last year.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the filler is safe to eat, but this has not stopped a campaign by food activists, which gained traction when celebrity chef Jamie Oliver complained about it on his television show and showed pictures of unsightly globs of filler.
'DUDE, IT'S BEEF'
Beef Products took out newspaper ads featuring testimonials from health experts attesting to the product's safety. The governors were handed T-shirts printed with the slogan, "Dude, it's beef."
Beef Products has four plants to produce the filler, but the plant where the tour was held is the only one that remains in operation. The other three were idled because of a drop in demand.
The company said few people are allowed into the plant because the machinery and processes it uses are proprietary.
It showed the governors and reporters how the product is made.
First, a conveyer belt brought in scraps left over from a plant next door that produces steaks, roasts and other cuts of meat. The scraps were heated to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) to facilitate separation of the fat, then dumped into a huge meat grinder to pull out fat, cartilage, bone and connective tissue.
A centrifuge spinning 3,000 times a minute continued the separation process. Inside a third machine the material was treated with ammonia hydroxide gas to eliminate bacteria.
The treated bits of meat were moved into large roller-presses inside drums up to 14 feet ( 4.3 metres) t all, which flattened the meat and froze it down to 15 degrees Fahrenheit (m inus 9 Celsius), w hich lightened its color. The meat was pried out of the drums, then put in a grinder that churned out 60-pound (27-k g) brick s that were packaged individually for shipment.
Companies selling hamburger fold the filler from the bricks into the hamburger to make it leaner.
At a news conference held at a nearby hotel, Brownback said the activists' campaign used a "catchy name" to discourage people from eating healthier beef.
"We're trying to get people to eat better, and now what is going to happen because of this unmerited, unwarranted food scare, and that's what it is ... you're going to drive up the price of lean ground beef," Brownback said.
Meat producers have predicted hamburger prices will rise as the spring grilling season begins because they will no longer be able to use the cheap filler to mix with the higher quality cuts of beef.
Beef Products' plant closures has meant the temporary loss of 650 jobs. Cargill Inc has also said it scaled back production.