Maybe the power of the almighty dollar speaks louder than fear of the unknown.
Two years after a frenzy over “pink slime” swept the country, the much-derided meat product the industry calls finely textured beef is quietly rebounding.
As ground beef prices climb to new heights, the country’s largest producers of the meat ingredient — which has been deemed safe by federal regulators — are seeing an uptick in demand after it was shunned by grocers and fast-food restaurants.
“The fallout over the media furor has died down,” said Steve Kay, publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly. “Now that the emotion is out of it, (consumers) realize the product always was and still is a perfectly legitimate beef product.”
Officials from Cargill Inc. and Beef Products Inc. said last week that they see increases in sales of the meat blend made from mostly fatty, boneless beef trimmings left over from slaughtered cattle.
Cargill produces finely textured beef and Beef Products sells a variation known as lean finely textured beef. The two products are differentiated by the patented processes used in making them.
A spokesman for Cargill said the company’s sales of finely textured beef bounced back — to an extent — after plunging 80 percent in the aftermath of the March 2012 controversy.
Yet the company’s product sales are still down 40 percent, spokesman Mike Martin said
Cargill sells to 400 customers, more than before the controversy, although some buy less of the product, Martin said.
A lawyer for Beef Products confirmed an increase in sales for its variation. He declined to comment further because of a pending defamation lawsuit the company brought against ABC News for referring to lean finely textured beef as “pink slime” in its coverage.
Beef Products accused the network of misleading the public into believing its low-fat product was unsafe to eat.
As a result, the company said it lost more than $400 million in sales and was forced to close three plants, including one in Garden City, Kan.
Cargill said the flare-up forced it to close a California plant. The negative publicity also factored into the idling of a plant in Plainview, Texas, employing 2,100.
The controversy brewed for months on blogs and among food-safety activists before it blew up in March 2012.
After the ABC report that month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it would allow the product to be kept out of school lunches even as the agency affirmed its safety.
The issue caught fire on social media, especially with reports that a USDA microbiologist a decade earlier had dubbed it “pink slime.” That gave the product a “yuck” reputation that Beef Products said was offensive.
“If that’s all you heard,” Martin said, “it was not a positive image of the product.”
Since then, producers have regrouped. Cargill, for example, has met with consumer focus groups nationally. Overall, the company has received feedback from more than 3,000 people, Martin said. The firm created a website dedicated to disseminating information about finely textured beef.
“Once people understood the product and how it’s produced, they had no problem with it,” Martin said.
Finely textured beef is harvested with a technology in use for 20 years that separates fat from beef scraps. Consequently, it allows producers to extract more meat from a carcass and produce ground beef more inexpensively.
The meat is then sprayed with a sanitizing mist — either a combination of ammonia and water or citric acid — and mixed with hamburger.
At one point before the controversy, the ingredient was believed to be in about 70 percent of the ground beef products sold in the United States.
Last fall, Cargill announced it would label its branded retail beef products containing the ingredient sold in grocery stores. The company encouraged retail grocers to follow suit.
Consumers shouldn’t go off the deep end as the product re-emerges, said Sarah Klein, a food safety attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“It probably shouldn’t have been maligned with the intensity that it was,” Klein said. “The reaction of everyone to distance themselves from the product gave credibility to what was eventually a non-issue to begin with.”
The return of finely textured beef is driven largely by dollars and cents, experts said, as the nation’s cattle herd has dwindled because of drought in the Southwest and the Great Plains.
At the beginning of the year, the nation’s cattle population totaled 87.7 million, down 2 percent from a year earlier and the lowest since 1951, according to USDA data.
Meanwhile, the price of ground beef stood at $3.81 a pound in April, up 17 percent from a year ago and the highest in at least 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Price was always going to play a huge factor in finely textured beef’s return,” said Kay, the cattle magazine publisher. “We’ve got this extraordinary appetite for ground beef and the supply of the raw material continues to shrink.”
Some grocers remain unwilling to sell the product.
Price Chopper and Dillons stores, for example, still don’t offer products containing lean fine textured beef, store officials said.
The product may be approved by the USDA, but consumers are still leery, Price Chopper President Peter Ciacco said in a statement.
“Because our customers have continued to express concern about the product, we have chosen not to purchase any ground beef that includes (lean finely textured beef),” Ciacco said.