The beef industry and Beef Products, Inc. (BPI) must surely wish they could turn the clock back to April 12 last year. That’s the day celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched the “pink slime” term into the blogosphere with a crude, but compelling, depiction on TV of how BPI manufactures its lean finely textured beef (LFTB).
That’s also the day the industry and BPI should have gone on the offensive against this and other gross misrepresentations of a legitimate, nutritious, safe and economical source of protein for Americans. And, that’s the day the industry and BPI gravely underestimated the power of social media to mold public perception, and threaten the existence of a product and the company that makes it.
The fallout from the furor over LFTB the past two months was enormous, and it will continue. The main lesson so far is that issues must be addressed as soon as they arise. The industry and BPI waited nearly a year to mount an all-out defense of the product. I’m bewildered why this did not begin the day after Oliver’s video aired.
One can only conjecture what might have occurred had BPI launched its beefisbeef.com website after the Oliver video, instead of waiting until this March. Or, if top officials had held their unprecedented press conference to defend LFTB 11 months ago. The press conference, held in Sioux City, IA, on March 29, included three governors and two lieutenant governors, USDA’s top food safety officer, a prominent consumer food safety advocate, and a prominent food safety scientist.
Bringing together this kind of fire power was a defining moment in the beef industry and perhaps for U.S. animal agriculture. It showed what can be done to protect the industry against unwarranted and spurious attacks on industry products and practices. But it was nearly a year too late. The “pink slime” term had already bolted from the stable and the industry has been unable to do much to rein it in.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it’s not as if the derogatory term came out of nowhere. It emerged in the 2009 documentary, “Food Inc.,” and in a December 21, 2009, New York Times story about BPI and LFTB. BPI should have gone on the offensive after this story. Any top-rate crisis manager would have urged such action.
To be fair to BPI, it was fighting at that point to retain its LFTB customers and believed any more publicity would inflame the issue. Yet that’s what happened even before the Oliver video. McDonald’s had already decided to drop its use of LFTB – it did by April – and Burger King and Taco Bell followed in the fall. Some meat industry trade groups by then began to defend LFTB publicly, but, again, it was too little, too late.
The second lesson is that “pink slime” will remain in social media; therefore, affecting consumer perception of LFTB for years. Once any term has its own Wikipedia entry, it’s out there forever, just like “mad cow” disease.
More stories will be written about LFTB. The media coverage to date shows that once a story gains momentum, it’s hard for any print or broadcast medium to ignore it. American media has a copycat mentality anyway. Should some outlet create a new twist to the story, others will jump on it.
Some industry groups are now apparently declining to respond to media requests for comments on new LFTB stories being planned. That’s a terrible decision. The LFTB issue will not fade away just because industry groups decline such requests. The industry needs to continue to counterattack as aggressively as it can until it is proven that the LFTB furor has died in terms of its impact on the beef industry. ❚❚
Steve Kay is editor and publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly (www.cattlebuyersweekly.com). See his weekly cattle market roundup each Friday afternoon at beefmagazine.com.