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Lessons from the Pink Slime Frenzy

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Pink Slime: What the Heck is it?

The Ominous Sludge that Your Kids are Eating

Lean Finely Textured Beef (aka Pink Slime). Photo Courtesy of The Washington PostThe “pink slime” uproar – the campaign against lean finely textured beef, used as filler in ground beef products – illustrated, above all, the power of words and language to mobilize people like little else. The Washington Post put it best: “People, it seems, who for years gobbled down ‘lean finely textured beef’ sat upright when they saw ‘pink slime.’”

It also showed us the changing face of activism. Social media not only spreads information incredibly quickly, but is excellent at effecting change, since the information is often packaged in heated emotion and personal investment, unlike most of the news spread by traditional media.

The industry (largely Beef Products International, a maker of LFTB forced to suspend production at three of its four plants) said it was nothing but an unfounded, unfair smear campaign. It also claimed that if the meat trimmings were not salvaged from the fatty tissue, with the use of a simple heating and centrifuge process, we would need another 1.5 million cattle per year to meet ground beef demand (wasteful).

Consumers, though, were upset that a “salvage product” that they say does not meet the government’s definition of ground beef was being used in their hamburgers and sausages, along with the ammonia used to treat it for bacteria (albeit food-grade, and used in many other food products), and let this be known through petitions that went viral across the internet in a matter of days.

It’s actually fascinating that this, of all food safety concerns, garnered national public and media attention, especially since, according to The Washington Post, “Federal regulators never sounded safety concerns about it. No one directly linked it to foodborne illnesses or outbreaks. In fact, many food safety activists praised it as a technological marvel in the dangerous world of raw meat.”

One of the more level-headed reactions to the debate (I thought) came from a reader’s comments on the Washington Post: “Just label the ground beef that has the filler and let the consumer decide. The beef is beef line is rather lame. Go to a grocery store and look at the beef section. If beef is beef why are all the different cuts labeled (rib eye, T-bone, etc.)? Seems labeling is ok when you can charge more, but when it may cause a product to be worth less, all of a sudden ‘beef is beef.’”

“It’s substantively not the most critical health issue, yet it was framed in such a way that the public outcry actually changed food policy in a matter of weeks,” Sarah Klein, a lawyer at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told The Washington Post. “If we could figure out the formula and apply it to serious public health issues, that would be amazing.”

As Nancy Heuhnergarth, a blogger for The Huffington Post, pointed out, the consumer uprising managed to force major changes in food policy and the USDA school lunch policy in a matter of weeks (starting in the fall, USDA will give schools the option of choosing ground beef that does not contain LFTB).  This is something the food reform movement has been trying, and failing, to do for years – “highlight a food system problem, incite consumer activism, and create rapid, sustainable change in both policy and practice.” Even trans-fats, a true public health threat, took years to get the attention needed to shift policy.

Setting the issue itself aside for a moment, it is refreshing to know that when enough people care strongly enough, change can shake the food world and political world quite rapidly – regardless of how glacial we may perceive government machinery to be. The overwhelming response compressed in a short time frame probably didn’t hurt, either.

Heuhnergarth asked what about this experience can be universal to activism, and it turned out the answer is most of it.

The issue was visceral for consumers; it struck a nerve. It drove home a broader point to them about the food industry and caused them to be a little more alert and skeptical about what’s in the food they’re buying. Consumers were grossed out, on principle they hated being deceived, and they were willing to speak out vehemently.

It was also an issue where the public felt government was siding with industry rather than them, and they were outraged that the beef filler was not required to be labeled.

Plus, the beef industry had terrible PR. It treated the outcry as a simple food safety fear and somewhat arrogantly told people they were misinformed. It failed to recognize and address the larger, more basic concern that most consumers had: not knowing what they were eating, which can manifest as more specific irrational fears. People are increasingly interested in buying whole foods, fresh foods, and knowing and recognizing the ingredients in what they buy. Any company that fails to anticipate and respond to this basic trend is in trouble.

If nothing else, the “pink slime” fiasco will create a precedent for heightened skepticism for the average consumer, and perhaps a level of healthy distrust of those few companies in charge of producing most of our food.

Genevieve Slocum is a Contributor to The Free George. Photo Courtesy of The Washington Post

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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