DES MOINES — He is one of the most successful campaigners in the state and never has lost a run for office during a political career that spans five decades.
But in March, Gov. Terry Branstad wasn’t running against another opponent, he was running against eye-catching photographs and videos of processed beef filler with the easy-to-remember name “pink slime.” And it was grabbing the headlines.
“You can’t get the word ‘pink slime’ out of people’s heads once they hear it,” said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University. “Frankly, there are a lot people out there that think meat is not good and are concerned about animal treatment. … This is like dumping a bucket of gold in their lap.”
The trade name for the filler is lean, finely textured beef. But “pink slime” blew up in March after a series of reports from ABC News. Grocery store chains and restaurants soon distanced themselves from the product and told customers they no longer would use or already had stopped using it.
Branstad’s team launched a counter-offensive in support of companies such as South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc. that make the filler. The campaign included a tour of a processing plant with Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Sam Brownback of Kansas, a rally at Iowa State University and an attempt to popularize a catch phrase “Dude, it’s beef.”
When Iowa-based grocery store chain Hy-Vee changed course and announced it would carry the product, albeit with labels, it was a victory for the counter-campaign, one of the few it has had to date.
“I think we got a very positive response,” Branstad said during a telephone interview last week. “The industry people tell me they should have 80 percent of the market back in six months.”
Other large grocery store chains, including Kroger, and international restaurant chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell have kept their ban.
Meanwhile, Beef Products Inc. just passed the halfway point of its 60-day shutdown of three beef manufacturing plants, including one in Waterloo, Iowa.
“We are not in position to discuss future plans for BPI’s operations today,” Beef Products spokesman Rich Jochum wrote in an email in response to questions about the future of the plants. “We remain committed to producing the lean, healthy product enjoyed by consumers for the last 30 years and remain focused in devoting all of our energy to rebuilding sales in order to facilitate operations at the BPI locations. We will communicate future plans to all interested parties as soon as those plans have been finalized.”
Pushing the message
On March 7, ABC News aired the first of several reports on the food additive. Google Trends shows searches for the term “pink slime” shot up that night and stayed at levels not previously recorded for the remainder of the month.
“This is just despicable,” Branstad’s chief of staff Jeff Boeynik wrote across the top of a March 25 email chain listing news stories that members of Branstad’s staff collected from the web. “How many jobs might be lost due to such irresponsible ‘journalism’?”
Boeynik’s was one of roughly 450 emails released by Branstad’s office to Quad-City Times Des Moines Bureau as a result of an open records request for documents pertaining to the controversy during a two-week period surrounding Branstad’s March 29 tour of the Beef Products plant in South Sioux City, Neb.
The emails show that the governor tapped people in his office, the Economic Development Authority, his top education policy adviser and the state’s Washington, D.C., lobbyist, among others, to work on the counter-offensive.
Email correspondence ranged from how best to ask for a congressional investigation, to bulleted talking points, down to the details of what media was expected to show up at the tour and what to wear.
“Gov. Branstad is planning on wearing a suit,” Doug Hoelscher, the state’s lobbyist in D.C. advised a member of Brownback’s staff.
Linda Fandel, Branstad’s special assistant on education policy, used her contacts to reach out to Iowa superintendents asking them not to be bullied by negative media and keep purchasing ground beef that contains the additive.
East Marshall Superintendent Allan Meyer wrote back, expressing the full support of his rural Gilman school district.
“And who is being ‘bullied and alarmed?’ You must think we are easily swayed,” his email read. “Until proven harmful we will continue to use the product.We are not like ‘Hy-Vee,’ cold one moment then hot the next.”
Ruth Comer, assistant vice president of marketing for Hy-Vee, said both decisions were done in response to feedback the company received from its customers.
“I think people just wanted a choice,” Comer said. “If we had to do it again, the decision would be made the same way, which is based on the response from our customers.”
Comer said there hasn’t been a noticeable effect on ground beef sales since stores began labeling and customers aren’t stocking up on one type of ground beef and leaving the other. She said workers label the packages containing beef made with the filler when they arrive in the store but the chain is working with its supplier to have the product labeled beforehand.
Toning down the response
But not everyone was so defiant. A study commissioned by the hamburger chain Red Robin released April 4 found that 88 percent of adults had heard the term “pink slime” and 76 percent of those said they were “somewhat concerned” about it. Perhaps most troubling was that 53 percent said they “took some action” in their shopping habits after hearing about it.
University of Northern Iowa Political Science Professor Chris Larimer used the governor’s response and Beef Products plant tour in his Iowa politics class.
“It was an example of how you can’t predict what policy becomes priority,” Larimer said. “This was clearly not something he intended to do this term. The (governor’s) response was quick, but it didn’t last too long.”
That, the governor said, was part of the plan.
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Branstad said he was ready to push the lean, finely textured beef message further, but he was asked by industry officials to tone it down after the rally at Iowa State University.
“They felt that it was best to see how everything developed,” Branstad said, identifying the people he spoke with only as “people in the meat industry.”
Whether that is the right course remains to be seen. Google Trends shows that interest in the subject “pink slime” tapered off since its 2012 high point on March 29. But Twitter statistics show that more than 600 people follow the #pinkslime hashtag, while only 43 follow the meat-industry-supported #beefisbeef tag.
“I don’t think (the response) changed perceptions,” Larimer said. “Something like ‘pink slime’ freaks people out.”
Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, whose district includes the shuttered Beef Products processing plant, said the governor’s efforts “just couldn’t keep up” with the spread of the negative publicity.
“Just the name, you know, calling it ‘pink slime,’ how do you compete with that?” Dotzler said. “But the governor’s response, the secretary of agriculture, I think they did what they could, but I really don’t know what the answer is.”
Next up: Meat glue
Schmidt, the ISU professor, thinks the lean, finely textured beef controversy was a precursor to a coming dustup on transglutaminase, a powder that is used to connect two or more pieces of meat together and the resulting product is sold as a single piece.
Some have begun calling it “meat glue.”
“I have no idea how they will fight the hysteria that will erupt from that!” Schmidt wrote in an email that linked a news article on the topic. “This one is almost worse given what apparently the glue is made from.”
On May 2, the search term “meat glue” was trending on Twitter and Facebook thanks to an article in the Los Angeles Times about a state assemblyman from California calling for an investigation into the product.
Asked about the potential public relations battle, Branstad fired a broadside at the people who spread the reports.
“Our biggest problem is people who use those smear tactics and repeat those misleading words in the media,” he said. “Unfortunately, it does come down to (semantics) a lot of the time. We have to educate people and use accurate, scientific words.”