ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A much-criticized beef product is making a comeback. Two years ago, processors cut back sharply on making what they call, finely textured beef. That sounds just a little better than pink slime - the nickname that got a lot of play in the media, forcing the production cuts. Now higher beef prices are leading to increased demand for the product. From Iowa Public Radio, Joyce Russell reports.
JOYCE RUSSELL, BYLINE: Chris Friesleben is at the headquarters of the Hy-Vee supermarket chain in suburban Des Moines. She's on the phone, today, with the company's customer care center, asking if they've heard anything lately about finely textured beef.
CHRIS FRIESLEBEN: Hey remember lean, finely textured beef? (Laughing) Yeah, how could you forget, right? Was it Cargill that - who was it that was - yeah, it was Cargill.
RUSSELL: Friesleben is vice president of communications for this grocery chain, and she's preparing for questions from shoppers now that Cargill and Beef Products Incorporated, or BPI, are ramping up production of the processed meat ingredient. Mike Martin at Cargill says the product is 100 percent lean beef trimmings, treated with citric acid to kill bacteria. In early 2012, unappetizing pictures made the rounds on social media and the news. Martin says consumers contacted retailers.
MIKE MARTIN: So by the end of March of 2012, Cargill's finely textured beef had incurred an 80 percent decrease in volume. We ultimately were forced to close down two of the production sites, out of the five that we had operating that produce finely textured beef.
RUSSELL: BPI closed down three plants and laid off more than 700 workers. But now, Cargill says, as beef prices rise, so have sales of the product. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says in 2010, the cost of ground beef averaged 2.25 a pound. It's gradually risen to nearly $4 a pound, so grocery stores and food processors, like the makers of lasagna and pasta sauce, are buying more ground beef with the cheaper beef mixed in. But not everyone's on board. Supermarket chains Kroger and Supervalu took it off their shelves two years ago, and they say the product won't return.
UNIDENTIFIED CASHIER: Would you like paper or plastic?
RUSSELL: At a Fareway grocery store in Ames, Craig Riecken is picking up a few items. He says he quit buying hamburger here, at the height of the scare.
CRAIG RIECKEN: Since the pink slime episode - we really thought that was a little deceptive, for them to be adding something to a product we thought was just the meat.
RUSSELL: So he switched to another store to buy his hamburger, where he can pick out steak and have it ground right there. That's even though Fareway never sold ground beef with the product in it and still doesn't. Joyce Birkestrand did not boycott ground beef even though she said the beef trimmings look awful on television.
JOYCE BIRKESTRAND: I don't know if it changed my shopping much because I like to eat meat. But I wish it wouldn't look quite so bad when they put it on TV.
RUSSELL: But some say that with beef costing so much more these days, the cheaper blend made with finely textured beef should remain available. Some crisis communications experts say that as consumers return to eating finely textured beef, the industry should get out in front this time. Consultant Ronald Hanser advises his clients to lean toward over-disclosure.
RONALD HANSER: If it's about how a certain product is treated with a particular chemical, be ready to talk about that. And it seems that the beef industry was not prepared to do that in the earlier cycle, and hopefully they are much better prepared now.
RUSSELL: Cargill started labeling products with the added ingredient after the bad publicity two years ago - so did Hy-Vee stores. In the meantime, it's the courts that may decide whether the media is liable for spreading the derogatory term, pink slime. In September of 2012, BPI filed a defamation suit against ABC News for its coverage. South Dakota's supreme court recently ruled the lawsuit can proceed. For NPR News, I'm Joyce Russell in Des Moines.
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