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20 June 2012

Pink slime: lessons in risk management


The makers of an innocent-sounding beef product have paid a very high price for not being up-front with consumers.

Some aspects of food production are not for the squeamish. So it's not surprising that we're not reminded of them by retailers or restaurateurs at the point of sale. All the same, most of us want to know what's in our food and where it comes from.

This means marketers walk the knife-edge of informing consumers without making them gag ... a challenge some marketers would prefer not to face. Instead they act to keep such processes hidden and consumers in the dark. Pink slime as the critics portray it

As a tactic, it can work. Most journalists and those in their social set don't have experience working in slaughterhouses or food processing plants. So hidden practices can remain hidden for a long time.

The trouble with the tactic lies in the severe consequences of inadvertent media exposure. 

So it was in April and May this year, when Beef Products Inc (BPI), a South Dakota meat processor found itself in the eye of a media storm over the production of lean finely textured beef (LFTB). Until last year this innocent-sounding product was included in up to 70% of all US burger patties and in many school lunch programmes.

LFTB is based on the trimmings remaining on the bone after beef is cut from a carcase. In a patented process these are mechanically stripped from the bones, ground, heated and centrifuged to remove fat. The bright pink meat paste is then exposed briefly to a puff of ammonia gas. This suddenly increases the pH of the meat, creating an environment that is too alkaline for bacteria to live in.

The resulting product is said to be safe to eat and wholesome, and is approved as a food ingredient for human consumption by the US Department of Agriculture. However it may not be manufactured or sold in Canada or the European Union. Also its USDA approval was controversial for both political and technical reasons.   

In 2002 a federal microbiologist opposed to the approval of LFTB coined the term ‘pink slime' which was then used in a 2009 New York Times expose

In 12 April last year, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver made an emotive video. This rocketed around the social media, with the principal post gleaning about 1.5 million hits.

On 7 March this year the real fire-storm began when ABC News published a blog posting titled, 70 per cent of ground beef at supermarkets contains pink slime. At the same time, blogger Bettina Siegel launched a petition on Change.org to Tell USDA to STOP Using Pink Slime in School Food, which received 200,000 signatures in nine days.

A few days later, major grocery chains said that they would stop selling ground beef with LFTB, and the USDA announced it will give school districts a choice of offering beef with or without the filler. McDonalds and Burger King removed the product from their burger mix and Wendys proudly advertised they'd never used it.

By the end of May, BPI had mothballed three of its plants, laid off 650 of its staff and was said to be in financial difficulty.

As BPI spokesperson Rich Jochum acknowledged, the process of communicating the benefits of BPI's lean beef was by now "much more difficult than (countering) the campaign to spread the misinformation that brought us to this point."

Not that the company was giving up. Politicians on both sides of the political divide who had benefited from BPI donations were weighing into the debate on BPI's behalf, decrying the emotive media for putting a good company out of business.

The American Meat Institute and BPI put out a YouTube video in which Dr Gary Acuff of Texas A&M University questioned some of Oliver's statements and said the product was wholesome.

BPI blamed social media and news organisations specifically ABC News, for what it called a gross misrepresentation of its product and process.  It hired a public relations company to launch two pro-pink slime websites, BeefIsBeef.com and PinkSlimeIsAMyth.com. Anonymous commentators using a common IP address then referred readers of news blogs to these sites.

According to Republic Report, a corporate whistleblower, front groups were used to smear opponents of pink slime. Also, Nancy Donley, president of Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP) toured the US defending pink slime and attacking media for criticising the product. As ABC News and the Atlantic have noted, Donley's group is sponsored by at least $US750,000 in donations from BPI.

Despite this huge - albeit misguided - effort, by mid-June the horse had clearly bolted and the prognosis for BPI and its signature product did not look good.

So where did BPI go wrong? And what could it have done to prevent the tsumami of public opprobrium that has almost overwhelmed them?

According to Marion Nestle, a nutrition and food-studies professor at New York University and book author, BPI misinterpreted the public concern as a food-safety issue, instead of recognising that critics were focused on not knowing what was added to their food and the belief that they were deceived.

"It's always sad when people are put out of work," Nestle said. "But this company, they could have handled the whole situation differently."

Andrew Gunther, program director of the US-based Animal Welfare Approved farm accreditation scheme agrees. He argues in the Huffington Post  that the real cause of public anger was the fact that most people were completely unaware that LFTB was being added to the ground beef they were buying in the first place, let alone the processes involved in manufacturing it.

An axiom of issues management is that a business should not do anything that it wouldn't be happy to see on the front page of the paper. Another axiom is that sensitive and potentially sensitive issues should be front-footed, so that the business is not put on the defensive by a media tsumani when the issue comes to public attention.

While LFTB is legal and microbiologically wholesome, it looks yuk, which is why the term ‘pink slime' has stuck. It also means any PR strategy for it should have focused on keeping the product uncontroversial and off the front page.

How to achieve that?

The company needed to have a two strand strategy - one to prevent attack. The other, covering how it would respond if an attack ever eventuated.

The prevention strategy needed to focus on taking public ownership of the product, rather than hiding it. This would have involved ...

  • Sensitively front-footing the use of LFTB in the nation's diet, so that its use became a matter of fact. (Not an easy task we freely admit.)
  • Keeping food technologists and other potential allies well informed.
  • Responding constructively to any media enquiries.
  • Publishing on a website technical data that addresses any concerns potential critics might have.
  • Insisting that the presence of LFTB was included on the list of ingredients of retail food packs.
  • Fronting up to the New York Times and showing them around a production plant, when the Times was researching its 2009 article.

Did BPI do any of these things?


Gunther likens the fiasco to the BSE crisis more than a decade ago.

"Both are instances where an ethically-questionable processing technology was introduced (essentially) out of public sight - and certainly without widespread public knowledge or acceptance - where the primary aim was to utilise slaughterhouse waste in order to minimise industry costs. And both subsequently resulted in a significant negative impact on the public image of the livestock farming community as a whole.

"Now, you could argue that the meat processors and food retailers involved just got it terribly wrong and mistakenly assumed that the public would be happy with the unlabeled addition of up to 15 percent LFTB to their ground beef. But it's hard not to conclude that the meat processors and food retailers ... did everything they could to ensure that consumers were kept in the dark by lobbying to avoid having to label this new product, for example."

These strategic failures aside, the tactical response of BPI to the crisis also failed almost all the rules of crisis management. 

  • They attacked the messengers and called on their political cronies to join the chorus.
  • They told consumers they were wrong.
  • They threatened legal action.
  • They set up front organisations and placed anonymous posts in the social media.

Talk about pouring petrol onto the fire.

So how should BPI have responded to the emerging crisis?

Bill Marler, publisher of Food Safety News and a US expert on foodborne illness litigation, says the answer is simple: they should have told the truth.

  • Why not say it was a mistake to hide from the public all ingredients and additives that are in the product? Tell the consumer that they have a right to know.
  • Why not tell the public how the product is made and what is in it? If you are proud of your product, explain in honest and clear terms why you are.  
  • Tell the consumer what the real benefit of the product is. Does it taste good?  Is it healthful? Does it save on energy? Is it sustainable? Does it create good jobs? Is it good for the environment?
  • Is the product itself, what is added to it, and the process to make it, safe?  What have been and are your lab test results?  Why not post them online?  If you are proud of the safety of your product, prove it.
  • Invite the public, not politicians, to your plant for a tour and a taste test.
  • Bottom line:  If you have nothing to hide then hide nothing.

That's all good advice, but it still might not be enough to save a product that offends cultural norms. And let's face it, the moniker ‘pink slime' presents a massive public relations challenge

In WHAM's view a company like BPI would have been wise to also have a contingency plan for withdrawing its controversial product if the heat should ever become too great. Fighting in the ditches for a pilloried product isn't always the best option, especially if there is a potential to reformulate, reposition and relaunch, which may well be the case with LFTB.

"Human culture determines what is socially acceptable to eat. Most of us don't eat the parts of animals our culture considers inedible. LFTB is not really slimy and it is reasonably safe and nutritious. But it violates cultural norms," says Nestle.

But surely, if LFTB is safe, isn't it acceptable?

Nestle says she's heard this argument before. "It's the same one used for GMOs. Even if technological processes like this are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable - especially if they are not labelled and do not give consumers a choice."




- Trevor Walton

What do you think?

Jeremy Jacobsen
You state: "LFTB is based on the trimmings remaining on the bone after beef is cut from a carcase. In a patented process these are mechanically stripped from the bones, ground, heated, centrifuged to remove fat and SPRAYED with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria." This is incorrect. The application of our antimicrobial treatment has been commonly misunderstood and explained incorrectly in the media for some time now. Our antimicrobial treatment delivery is a minuscule puff of ammonia gas that the meat is actually only exposed to for less than a second. This sudden raise in the meat's pH kills the environment that most bacteria need to survive which is a acidic environment or a lower ph. I do appreciate that you took the time to research this material and then write about it. That is every rare and you deserve praise for it. Thank you… Jeremy Jacobsen Beef Products Incorporated

Trevor Walton
Thanks for the compliment Jeremy. I have corrected the story.

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