Meatingplace editors: Michael Fielding, Dani Friedland, Rita Jane Gabbett, Tom Johnson, and Lisa M. Keefe take a comprehensive look at the “pink slime” hysteria that exploded like spontaneous combustion this past March and what lessons we all much learn from it.
How a TV news report, a 10-year-old catchphrase and overmatched PR defense conspired to swamp the industry — and what to do differently next time. Because there will be a next time.
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By Meatingplace editors: Michael Fielding, Dani Friedland, Rita Jane Gabbett, Tom Johnston, Lisa M. Keefe
It was a dark and stormy night — really. The cold front that passed over Dakota Dunes, S.D., late in the day on March 7 stirred up gusts of 35 mph that whipped the sprinkles of rain into mini-daggers.
Eldon Roth might not have noticed, either the inclement weather outside or the storm gathering in the media that in the span of just a few weeks would nearly blow his company away. The CEO of Dakota Dunes-based Beef Products Inc. (BPI) and his executive team were focused at that point on replacing the business lost in January when McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King simultaneously announced that they would cease using BPI’s sole product, lean finely textured beef (LFTB), in their burgers. And the processor was beginning to make progress.
But, by the time the sun rose over the Sioux City suburb on March 8, the world around BPI had changed. “ABC World News Tonight” had run a three-minute report the evening before on the use of LFTB in lean burgers, and it propelled what had been dribs and drabs of coverage about the product into a torrent. Initial coverage was overwhelmingly negative toward LFTB (and finely textured beef, or FTB, a similar product made by Cargill) and inaccurate on several key points, but effective enough to eventually reach 88 percent of the general population, according to a poll by Harris Interactive. Just 18 days after the ABC report initially ran, BPI shut down three-quarters of its production and laid off 650 employees in three states. A week later, AFA Foods, a major producer of ground beef for schools based in King of Prussia, Pa., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Cargill, whose volume of production is much smaller than BPI’s, laid off about two dozen people because of the FTB flap.
(BPI executives did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.)
No one watching the (L)FTB/”pink slime” news story unfold and spread was left unimpressed by its speed and power: Activists looking to get the stuff removed from ground beef crowed over their “win” on Twitter while meat industry execs, government regulators, media critics and ag state politicians were left trying to catch a breath. And while several characteristics of the story’s birth and its spread are brand-new, nobody expects them to remain unique for long.
“Absolutely something like this could happen again,” says Jeff Stier, director of the National Center for Public Policy Research’s Risk Analysis Division. “The elements that led to it still exist.”
The explosion in media coverage seemed to come out of nowhere — “like spontaneous combustion,” Stier says — in part because it did. There were none of the usual news “hooks”: No recall, no lawsuit, and the three quick-service restaurants had dropped BPI as a supplier a full two months earlier.
“I’ve never seen anything unfold like this one unfolded. We’ve had issues that were big crises in the industry, but they almost always had some basis,” says Barry Carpenter. Before being named CEO of the National Meat Association, Carpenter was for 15 years the deputy administrator of the Livestock and Seed Program of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.
Furthermore, the product and its manufacture, which includes the application of ammonium hydroxide gas as an antimicrobial (Cargill’s version uses citric acid), had been well covered in the media already, notably in a Washington Post article in June 2008. Even the moniker “pink slime,” which a former USDA employee coined 10 years ago in an internal memo in which he expressed his concerns about LFTB, surfaced in The New York Times in late December 2009, in an investigative piece that won the paper a Pulitzer Prize. Jamie Oliver’s household ammonia-splashed beef stunt first aired in April 2011, but no media, social or otherwise, picked up the thread.
Nevertheless, on March 5, The Daily, a tablet-only app newspaper published by News Corp., ran an article on the USDA’s announced plans to buy 7 million pounds of LFTB for the National School Lunch Program — about the same amount of LFTB that the agency had been buying on behalf of schools for years. The next day, TheLunchTray.com blogger Bettina Elias Siegel, dismayed at the USDA’s announcement, started a petition on Change.org to get LFTB removed from the NSLP. And on March 7 the ABC News report ran, followed by two more related segments on successive evenings.
“I think there were two things: There was the social media and there was ABC News,” says Janet Riley, senior vice president of public affairs for the American Meat Institute.
If any part of the Internet remains nearly unregulated, it’s the social media sphere. There are laws intended to protect people, companies and products from damaging commentary, but courts give the media wide latitude — and “the media” now includes bloggers, tweeters and website commenters. In other words, seasoned reporters, expert commentators and the guy down the street with a bone to pick all have the same bully pulpit.
Meanwhile, the number of blogs worldwide top 173 million, according to research firm NM Incite (a unit of Nielsen). In February 2008, when the Hallmark-Westland story broke — uncovering one California processor’s abuse of livestock that ultimately resulted in the largest food recall in history — those blogs numbered about 70 million. Facebook now has 1 billion active users, and Twitter has about 140 million active users, according to MediaBistro.com.
“What’s fundamentally different about this [is that] ordinary people are tremendously influential, based on their network and how that network is able to disseminate the information it receives,” says John Hellerman, a partner in Hellerman Baretz Communications in Washington, D.C, and a crisis communications expert.
Within this far-flung audience, the news coverage on ABC in particular seemed to set off the firestorm. Riley surmises that while new-media promoters often disparage mainstream media’s plodding habits, a news story gains weight when it has a traditional media brand’s imprimatur. That ABC dedicated time on three successive nights to the topic, and returned to it repeatedly in the following weeks, made the story far more influential than it would have been otherwise.
“That began to resonate with people, and that’s when the school lunch things happened,” Carpenter says. “The social media and the sophistication it took to get a petition going online was what took it over the edge.”
And then it was a free-fall: Research by Crimson Hexagon, a business intelligence consulting firm in Boston, shows that on March 5, 490 opinions about “pink slime” were posted on Twitter and Facebook collectively. On March 10, “pink slime” was mentioned in 8,429 posts.
A picture’s worth
Fueling the social media feeding frenzy was the evocative imagery that went along with it. First, there was that picture — the wrong one that probably shows mechanically separated poultry pouring into a cardboard box; the one whose origins are unknown, but which was nevertheless attached to the story and published alongside it by everyone from mainstream media to the New York Manhattan Borough President’s office.
“We’re very visually oriented,” Riley notes. “It was hard to replace that visual in people’s minds.”
And then there’s that nickname. It’s “sexy” and “catchy,” Riley says, “kind of like when people were using ‘mad cow’.” It is a highly visual phrase, combining color and texture, making it a strong lure for headline writers seeking to grab the audience’s ever-shortening attention span. Most importantly, consumers heard it first.
“You had a perfect storm of sort-of facts, you have this product no one knows anything about, and before anyone knows what its real name is, it gets tagged with the ‘pink slime’ name,” Hellerman points out.
A final lightning rod associated with the (L)FTB issue was consumers’ sense of having been deceived — although the process, USDA’s purchase history, and the product’s presence in retail ground beef has long been public information. They didn’t know ammonia was “added” to LFTB, they didn’t know it was made from trimmings that otherwise would be pet food, they didn’t know it was in the package.
A typical sentiment, from John Ryan, a food safety and traceability consultant in Los Angeles, as posted on the “Food Pathogen Outbreak/Recall Response Group” on LinkedIn: “These companies have one goal — sales. They do not … disclose food technology changes in the interest of the public. Rather, they choose to … intentionally deceive.”
Ryan’s expertise in the food industry notwithstanding, the sense of deception is another casualty of the divide between mostly urban-dwelling consumers and the ag industry, which employs just 2 percent of working Americans, says Mike Martin, spokesman for Cargill Meat Solutions.
“The average American is so far removed from food production … they don’t necessarily even look at bread, olive oil and wine as processed food,” he says. “There were a lot of consumers that, even though it’s 100 percent beef, because it’s a different process used to gather that beef, they want to know.”
Carpenter notes that whether consumers were immersed in the topic or simply read about it in passing, “two things come to mind: ‘Slime doesn’t sound like something I want to eat,’ and ‘Somehow I’ve been deceived for this period of time.’ And that’s really concerning because much of the technology we use in the world and in the food systems are not visible to the ultimate consumer.
Dude, it’s transparency
In the face of this onslaught, the companies and meat industry associations came on strong: American Meat Institute President J. Patrick Boyle released a statement on the morning after ABC’s first report, correcting misinformation that it had broadcast. By March 19, BPI had built a website (beefisbeef.com) with links, facts and video. Cargill also posted a video on its site before the end of the month, explaining its FTB manufacturing process. On March 29, BPI hosted a large and closely followed news conference with three ag-state governors, the founder of STOP Foodborne Illness, nationally recognized food safety experts and USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen that included a tour of a manufacturing plant. National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and others have posted video on YouTube and sent releases far and wide affirming the safety and quality of (L)FTB.
All for naught, apparently.
One big problem: USDA’s response, which was late and bipolar. It was 10 days after The Daily’s initial report that USDA said anything, and then, on the same day that it issued a statement affirming the safety and its approval of (L)FTB, it also announced that schools ordering ground beef through the NSLP would have a choice as to whether it would include the product.
“[Consumers] were seeing the government be relatively quiet,” Riley says. The silence was deafening to consumers who, according to research by Cargill, consider the agency one of the most credible sources of information on the food system. In those 10 days, meanwhile, every major supermarket chain in the U.S., responding to a flood of inquiries from customers, pledged not to carry the stuff.
(Some legislators think USDA should do more: On April 19, 30 members of Congress called on USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to “correct the public record and educate consumers about the safety of lean finely textured beef (LFTB).”)
Another problem: In many ways these tactical efforts are spitting in the wind. Still in the midst of a deep economic downturn, fed by revelations of fraudulent mortgages and foreclosures by banks, chicanery at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, with memories of Enron, WorldCom, Bernie Madoff and other scams still crystal clear, consumers are loaded for corporate bear and have the means to make their anger heard. Add to that the meat industry’s long-standing aversion to inviting the public to witness the nitty-gritty process of making sausage; thanks again to the Internet, which makes industrial transparency not only possible but expected, and consumers think the meat companies are hiding something.
That BPI and others worked so hard all those years ago to make sure that (L)FTB wasn’t required on the label rendered the scientific facts useless: Consumers smelled a cover-up.
“The tendency is to think, ‘We’re not making anything that anybody needs to know about except our customers,’” Hellerman says. “But for pure reputation capital reasons, you need to have a communications aspect to your business.”
With some exceptions, the meat industry is not known for effective consumer marketing, on either a company or industry level. The lack of empathy that consumers feel for the companies that make their food is evident. “Whether it’s animal welfare, food safety, sustainability, production processes — you see it every day, somebody’s issuing a report about health and nutrition, and videos or undercover this or whistleblower that. It’s nonstop,” Cargill’s Martin says. “I think there is a realization among a lot of people [in the industry] that they could be more vested in transparency and story-telling.”
Said HMSHost Corporate Chef Rick Wolff, commenting on a panel discussion at the Protein Innovation Summit in Chicago in April, “If you look at transparency … ‘pink slime’ should have happened. ‘Honest food’ is one of the major trends that’s going to stay: [I wonder] how honest we are about … where our food really comes from.”
The morning after
Efforts are underway to establish that connection to meat’s ultimate end-user. Cargill plans focus groups with consumers to get a better handle on who or what influences their food-purchasing decisions. The meat industry’s associations are looking into similar research.
AMI’s Riley is working on producing more videos on this and other topics that are likely to spark consumers’ interest, and to raise the curtain on some of the industry’s more controversial operations, like slaughter, in hopes of educating consumers and improving transparency. AMI added an LFTB education session to the Meat, Poultry & Seafood Expo in Dallas earlier this month. Riley also recommends that meat companies gather images and video of their operations to have on-hand, the better to respond to criticism and inquiries.
Meanwhile, the tenor of the coverage has shifted toward center, with columnists and letters to the editor arguing the product’s benefits and, in some cases, criticizing the way the issue was covered in both the mainstream and social media. At least one retailer — Hy-Vee — reversed its initial decision to eliminate LFTB from its ground beef offerings and give customers a choice. Even the most strident activists seem satisfied with the idea that companies will name the product on the label.
And none too soon. In late April, ABC News did a “consumer watchdog” report referencing “whistleblowers” inside the USDA criticizing the agency’s plans to overhaul the poultry industry’s inspection system. The network reportedly has more such stories in the works. With non-O157:H7 STECs, Salmonella, HACCP validation and pre-harvest interventions also on the table, the meat industry will not lack for opportunities to test its communications skills.
A dark and stormy night, indeed.
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