Op-Ed: Why the beef industry should've been up front about 'pink slime'

Posted Apr 20, 2012 by Leigh Goessl
These days many beef companies are suffering a severe financial impact as the inclusion of 'pink slime' in hamburger beef took front and center in publicity.
USDA inspection of beef grinding operation.
USDA inspection of beef grinding operation.
The so-called 'pink slime' has been prominently highlighted in the media for a couple of months now as outraged consumers react to the news they have been eating the lean finely textured beef (LFTB) for years, unaware of what's exactly in their ground beef.
Additionally, social media helped raise the awareness level, and quickly.
No labeling requirement
While LFTB has been banned in other countries, such as the U.K., and only used in pet food, the beef scraps sold in the U.S. were treated with an ammonium hydroxide procedure. This procedure was designed to kill off any undesired bacteria and consumers hadn't a clue.
The reason consumers were unaware of the fact they were eating ammonia-treated beef scraps, blended in with hamburger meat, was because the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture did not mandate any labeling. So, not only was the procedure legal and given the USDA stamp of approval, the agency considered ammonia a 'processing agent', and companies were able to sell the product without disclosing exactly what it was they were selling.
According to a 2009 New York Times report, former USDA microbiologist, Gerald Zirnstein, referred to the ammonium treated beef as "pink slime" in a 2002 e-mail message to colleagues, stating, “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Building
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Building
Apparently, once consumers found out on a wider scale, enter social media, they felt the same.
Social media's role in the 'pink slime' controversy
This stuff has been sold for decades without much complaint, but a large reason for this is likely because people have historically not been connected to the extent they are today. While the industry has taken its hits over the decades, the fallout hadn't been as rapid the way it is nowadays with social media so prominently used.
A single Facebook post or tweet on Twitter can go viral very quickly, and as the Washington Post reported, can quickly escalate accelerate into a public relations nightmare.
As Bloomberg points out, once media jumped on the story and the word hit social media, there was no going back.
“Social media is something that adds oxygen to the environment,” Matthew Salganik, an assistant professor of sociology at Princeton University recently told Bloomberg. “It increases the chance that a small spark will turn into a big fire.”
Thanks in part to social media, consumers are now very much aware of the presence of LFTB and are angry enough to push back.
The market speaks
As a result of the 'pink slime' controversy, the market is speaking loudly. As publicity and outrage continue to highlight the issue, the market has begun to react, and those companies either making or selling LFTB have experienced severe financial impacts, most primarily the makers.
Many grocery outlets and fast-food chains are washing their hands of LFTB and promising their customers the product will no longer grace their shelves or restaurants. Others, such as Wendy's, are highlighting in advertisements they've never sold LFTB.
Schools, formerly using the beef byproduct in their lunch programs, now have the choice to opt-out of LFTB, and many are taking this route.
All of which has left the industry a huge mess. One company recently filed for bankruptcy and another major LFTB producer, the one that perfected the process initially, was forced to close down three of its four plants.
Honesty is best policy?
Not labeling this product was a big mistake on the beef industry's part, because now several companies are suffering major repercussions of decisions made long ago. These days the methods of communication are vast and any company should realize this and be prepared for the potential wrath of a social media firestorm.
While every industry probably has its 'dirty' little secrets, this 'pink slime' controversy is probably a perfect example of "honesty is the best policy."
Can the industry undo the damage?
Now that the beast has been unleashed, can those involved in the beef industry undo the damage? Currently, LFTB producers scramble to survive, with some of the companies asking the USDA to allow them to label the products, which the USDA did recently grant the option of voluntary labeling.
Whether or not labeling will turn things around and have a positive impact on the industry remains to be seen. However, if the product was so innovative and terrific as its creators claim, the question begs asking, why the secret in the first place? Wouldn't a better approach have been to simply label, this way consumers ultimately make the choice for themselves and determine whether or not the product is worthy of purchase?
Had the beef industry been upfront about LFTB from the get-go, would they currently be in the predicament they are today?
Probably not.
By not being straightforward, the industry has instead come up against the power of social media and been forced to battle the artificial branding of 'pink slime' rather than 'lean finely textured beef' as intended.