* Iowa governor seeks to counter attacks
* USDA, Iowa governor set up press conference
* Governors to tour beef plant
* Beef industry caught off guard
By Andrew Stern
CHICAGO, March 28 Supporters of the U.S. meat
industry fought back on Wednesday to slow what they called a
smear campaign by consumer activists seeking a ban on meat
scraps added to hamburger that critics have called "pink slime."
"They've been a victim of a smear campaign, and I think we
need to do all we can to try to counter this," Iowa Governor
Terry Branstad was quoted by his spokesman as saying.
Branstad and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in
a statement they would hold a news conference Wednesday
afternoon in Des Moines, Iowa, to "clarify facts regarding ...
lean finely textured beef," the industry's name for the product.
Last week, the Agriculture Department said school districts
will be able to opt out of using the ammonia-treated beef filler
in school lunch programs.
The department, which purchases about one-fifth of the food
served in U.S. schools, said it was responding to calls from
districts to be given more choices in purchases of ground beef
products. It said it only bought products for the school lunch
program that were safe, nutritious and affordable, including
those containing the filler.
After the USDA announcement, the nation's top three
supermarket chains -- Kroger Co, Safeway Inc and Supervalu Inc
-- all said they would no longer sell hamburger containing the
product. Walmart, the nation's largest food seller, said it
would no longer use the product in its trays of hamburger.
The largest producer of the filler, Beef Products Inc, on
Monday announced it would suspend operations at three of its
four plants at a cost of 650 jobs in Texas, Kansas and Iowa.
In a bid to counter the negative image of the product,
Branstad will accompany fellow Republican governors Sam
Brownback of Kansas and Rick Perry of Texas on a tour of a Beef
Products Inc plant in South Sioux City, Nebraska, on Thursday.
The beef industry was caught off guard by the campaign
against the product after celebrity chef Jamie Oliver devoted a
television show to deriding the filler last April.
Responding to consumer pressure, McDonald's last August
stopped putting the textured beef in hamburgers, followed by
some other fast food companies.
The beef industry says the product is 98 percent lean meat
and the USDA says that it is safe. But images of an unsightly
glob of filler, which have circulated on the Internet, have left
a negative impression with some consumers.