April 4, 2012

Meet the Lobbyists Promoting ‘Pink Slime’ In Your Hamburger Meat

Meet the Lobbyists Promoting 'Pink Slime' In Your Hamburger Meat
Former Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD), now a lobbyist for pink slime.

At the core of the controversy over “pink slime” is a story about corporate corruption. Pink slime is a popular name for a filler substance created by combining various beef trimmings and connective tissue that is treated by ammonia before being ground up and added to real beef. The recent news coverage has people wondering: How do I know if I am eating the substance?

Joann Smith, as an under secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the early 90s, made the decision to allow pink slime, once reserved as strictly dog food, to be sold for human consumption. Smith later stepped down from her government position and joined the board of directors of Beef Products Inc., the top pink slime manufacturing company, receiving compensation of over $1.2 million over some 17 years.

But problems persist. Why doesn’t the USDA require school lunches, grocery stores, or restaurants to disclose which food products contain this mystery meat? And if it’s perfectly safe, why have pink slime companies lobbied against bills that would allow industry whistleblowers to speak up?

The answer, again, relates to the influence of money in politics. Beef Products Inc., the top producer of pink slime, has ramped up its lobbying spending since the New York Times helped blow the lid off the controversy in 2009:

Meet the Lobbyists Promoting 'Pink Slime' In Your Hamburger Meat
Beef Products Inc. lobbying expenditures compiled by Republic Report. BPI is the top producer of pink slime.

Beef Products Inc. retains a team of lobbyists from the firm Olsson, Frank & Weeda. One lobbyist employed by the firm is Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a former congresswoman from South Dakota and leader of the “Blue Dog Caucus” of pro-corporate Democrats. Sandlin recently circulated a letter among congressional insiders to defend her client and warn against efforts to bring greater scrutiny to pink slime:

“Dear colleagues, letters have started to circulate on the Hill which perpetuate serious, misleading information attacking BPI and its product […] I respectfully request that the senator/representative not sign such letters and also urge their colleagues to get more complete information beyond what recent sensationalized ‘news’ stories have provided.”

But direct lobbying is only part of the way companies like Beef Products Inc. (BPI) hold sway over government policies. Eldon Roth, CEO of BPI and a campaign contributor to Mitt Romney, is on the board of the American Meat Institute, a trade association that brings together major meat manufacturers to collectively lobby and pressure officials. The Meat Institute employs some of the top names on K Street to lobby Congress, including Tony Podesta.

The Meat Institute, which boasts an advocacy budget of over $10 million, hosts a “MeatUp Boot Camp” for industry to learn tips and tricks for “team crisis management and grass roots campaign strategy.” The lobby events often feature several nonprofit food safety groups, oddly.

With a regulatory battle looming over disclosure of pink slime in our meat, those lobbyist “MeatUps” may come in handy for industry.

RELATED: The lobbyists behind the decision to make pizza a vegetable.