* 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 (Reuters) - 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.