Beef Products Inc. (BPI), the manufacturers of lean finely textured beef (LFTB), the production of which was decimated by an ABC News-led media firestorm earlier this year, called a press conference yesterday. The purpose was to announce a “major lawsuit regarding defamation of … lean finely textured beef.” BPI is asking for $1.2 billion in damages.
The legal hurdles for defamation are huge. Obviously, the component of proving economic damage will be easy, and there certainly was a tremendous amount of incorrect material presented by ABC as well. But the sad fact is that when the media chooses to ignore facts and sensationalize a story, there’s little recourse for the aggrieved to take, even if a company, its employees, consumers and the public are injured in the process. Some conjecture that this BPI lawsuit is aimed at proving the claims were false, and holding accountable the individuals who distorted the truth, even if the damage done can’t be rectified.
BEEF Video: Consumers, Producers Speak Out On Behalf Of Lean Finely Textured Beef
While this may be the last big act in the LFTB fiasco, the big issue from an industry standpoint is still on the table. How can we prevent such uninformed, inaccurate, ill-intentioned, and well-orchestrated attacks from succeeding in the future?
The list of technologies under attack seemingly grows daily and is threatening the industry’s ability to remain competitive in the process. While science and modern technology can’t be allowed to be simply thrown under the bus to assuage the crowd that believes simpler, less sophisticated production practices are better, we also have come to realize that science means nothing in the face of public/consumer perceptions relative to a technology.
So-called “franken foods” and “pink slime” were game changers simply by the impact of their labels. Meanwhile, other technologies, such as antibiotics and growth promotants, have survived because consumers have received a more balanced view. While superbugs and hormones certainly carry powerful stigmas, consumers generally realize there are two sides to the issue and the science quoted in trying to eliminate these technologies is dubious.
From an industry perspective, it’s not only sound science and technology that are being assaulted, but sound management practices, too. Sadly, our response largely still seems to center on obtaining and following good science.
A Closer Look: What Is Lean Finely Textured Beef?
As an industry, I don’t believe we should ever try to defend a practice that isn’t supported by science, whether it’s animal welfare, environmental protection or food safety. At the same time, we are nothing but foolish if we believe that doing what is right is a sufficient defense against those who wish to eliminate our industry.
We’ve all heard very good cattlemen characterize existing technology this way: “We will use it for as long as we are allowed to use it, then we will quit it.” We should be saluted for making the changes when superior practices or technologies are developed, but we should never sit back and allow perceptions to be formed that reduce the safety and healthfulness of our product, the sustainability of our environment and the welfare of the animals we are trusted with caring for.
Perhaps at some point in the past, we could trust the media and legislative bodies to be effective arbiters between the truth and extremist positions; today that position is naïve at best. The industry isn’t only to be blamed for relying too heavily on the true facts, but also for the way we have framed our messages. For cattlemen, it’s understood that sustainability and profitability are linked to taking care of our customer, the land, animals, etc. While this may be 100% true, framing things in economic terms has proven to be a mistake.
In today’s populism-fueled environment, success is more likely to be regarded as a problem than a reward for honorable behavior in the marketplace. And economic incentives and profitability are, more often than not, seen as signs of abuse or unethical motivation. Economic justifications are pale substitutes for value portrayals in defending good science.
The reality is that while we may have made tremendous strides in producing a healthier, safer, more environmentally friendly product, while always advancing the basic tenet of our industry that the welfare of our animals and the land comes first, we are being demonized instead of congratulated for those successes. We have created a great story; unfortunately, we’ve fallen very short in the telling of that story.
Click here to read the BPI complaint.