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Low Demand Causes Three Pink Slime Plants to Close

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Even in a place where the hot dog is nationally exalted, where Hormel's (HRL) Spam has thrived since 1937, and where "dodge a triple bypass if you dare!" is an effective burger-marketing strategy, it's possible to go too far.

It's one thing to offer "meat" that everyone sort of knows isn't really meat, as Taco Bell (YUM) allegedly did. It's quite another to market something as 100% ground beef that actually contains the much-ballyhooed "pink slime."

Beef Products Inc., makers of what the industry calls lean finely textured beef or boneless lean beef trimmings, announced it will close three of its factories on May 25. The plants, in Kansas, Iowa, and Texas, employed about 650 people.

The company says it was forced to close plants because of  a "campaign to spread misinformation that brought us to this point." The governors of the states affected by the closings did photo ops showing them eating lean, finely textured burgers, to no avail. Another maker of LFTB, AFA Foods, announced in early April it was filing for bankruptcy for the same reasons.

Although Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad referred to the brouhaha over the filler as a "false, misleading smear campaign," the undiluted facts speak for themselves.

So-named by a microbiologist who once worked for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, pink slime is bits of beef trim treated with ammonia to kill bacteria. Since the ammonia-treated meat isn't likely to cause foodborne illness, and since, like tripe and brains, it does technically qualify as "beef," the USDA gave it the stamp of approval. As with GMO foods, the agency doesn't require the food services industry to indicate whether or how much of this filler is in its beef.

When the microbiologist gave his disgusted feedback after touring a Beef Products Inc. plant, the USDA refocused the issue on the "safety" of the item only, not its culinary merits. Still, just the name "pink slime," so reminiscent of "soylent green," was enough to set off the collective gag reflex. Even McDonald's (MCD), Burger King (BKC), and Taco Bell wouldn't touch the stuff anymore.

When it came to light that the USDA used it extensively for school-lunch offerings, the resulting protest persuaded the agency to agree to offer schools the option of using ground beef without pink slime starting next semester.

Starbucks (SBUX) recently faced a similar raised eyebrow when a vegan blogger pointed out that its strawberry smoothies use insect extracts as a food dye and thus don't qualify as "vegan." "Never mind the vegan thing -- there are bugs in my drink?" was a not uncommon reaction to the news. Starbucks countered that using insect extract was more environmentally sound than using artificial coloring. 
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