No. 2: BPI closes plants amidst 'pink slime' controversy
Editor's note: This is the ninth in a series of stories featuring The Telegram's top 10 news stories of 2012.
BY ANGIE HAFLICH
A local beef manufacturing plant that produced what's known in the industry as "lean, finely textured beef," but is referred to as "pink slime" by those seeking to have it banned, stopped operations at its Holcomb plant in May of this year, causing a loss of 236 local jobs. Beef Products Inc., announced March 26 that it was closing its Holcomb, Amarillo, Texas, and Waterloo, Iowa plants. The closings came on the heels of growing national criticism about the beef product's safety and nutrition.
The controversy over the so-called "pink slime" product, and the subsequent closing of the three BPI plants, is No. 2 on The Telegram's list of top 10 news stories of 2012.
At the time, company officials hoped the closings were temporary. Employees received full salary and benefits until May 25.
The Holcomb BPI plant, 3105 N. IBP Road, opened in 1986 and was adjacent to the Tyson Fresh Meats plant.
On May 7, BPI announced that it would be permanently closing its Holcomb facility on May 25, in addition to the facilities in Amarillo and Waterloo, putting a total of about 650 people out of work.
BPI operations continued at a reduced capacity at a fourth facility in South Sioux City, Neb., according to BPI officials.
At that time, Rich Jochum, a BPI spokesman, said in a statement. "We intend to continue operations in (South Sioux City) and expand production here as the market activity allows. In the interim, we continue to stand by our lean beef as 100 percent wholesome, safe and nutritious, and we will continue to defend (BPI) against the mischaracterizations and irresponsible misrepresentations that led us to take these actions."
BPI has been the subject of nationwide scrutiny due to its lean, finely textured beef product, which uses beef trimmings from connective tissue separated from fat and treated with ammonia gas to be used as a meat filler in ground beef.
The FDA-approved product was featured in a 2008 documentary, "Food Inc.," and was part of a New York Times investigative report in 2009. The connective tissue used in the process also has been used in products like dog food and cooking oil in the past, a sticking point for people looking to remove the product from store shelves and food establishments.
More recently, BPI's products was part of an ABC News investigative report on March 8 that detailed how to find out if the product was added to meat at local supermarkets. A week following the ABC report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would allow school districts to stop using the product, and a number of retail chains, including Safeway, Kroger and Food Lion, announced they would stop stocking beef containing the filler.
Food critic Jamie Oliver made a YouTube video about the product, which has more than 1 million views. In the video, Oliver illustrates how the product is made by putting meat in a washing machine and then pouring a mixture of ammonia and water over it.
BPI's closing came after 30 years of highly regarded food safety, according to a memo issued at the time of the plant closings and addressed to "friends and colleagues" from BPI president and CEO Eldon Roth.
At that time, Jochum said that BPI would be working to restore confidence in its lean, finely textured beef product, which has received the moniker of "pink slime" in an increasingly heated controversy about the product. He said that the negative stories about the product, which he called defamatory and libelous, were being countered with a website BPI created called beefisbeef.com, which presents positive information about the treated beef.
Holcomb Mayor Gary Newman wrote to The Telegram that the move to close the plant was a sad turn for the community.
"The so-called 'grassroots efforts' apparently orchestrated by a certain media outlet has created such a false and negative perception of an important member of our community that our city, our county and our state will now pay the ultimate price with a significant loss in jobs," Newman wrote. "It is sad news to hear that a company with an unsurpassed safety record, who has been recognized for its quality and safety, is now forced to make cuts that will impact so many lives in our community."
BPI Technology, Inc., Beef Products, Inc., and Freezing Machines, Inc. — known collectively as BPI — filed a lawsuit on Sept. 13 against the American Broadcast Companies, Inc., ABC News, Inc., three ABC News reporters, a former BPI employee, and two former employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.