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The bottom line is that the industry must get ahead of these issues before it’s too late. But that can be a tough challenge in today’s social media environment.
April 30, 2013
It was a little over a year ago that the issue of “pink slime” exploded into the national consciousness. One of the U.S. beef industry’s shining success stories in carcass utilization quickly became a huge industry black eye in terms of consumer perception following a relentless social media attack regarding lean finely textured beef (LFTB).
The furor was precipitated by a series of sensational reports by ABC News, which ultimately drew a defamation lawsuit brought by BPI, the dominant maker of LFTB. In the interim, a boycott of LFTB by major retailers forced the closure of three of four BPI processing plants and the layoff of 700 workers.
But the tentacles of that media furor reached farther than that. When Cargill closed its Plainview, TX, processing plant in January 2013, the culprit most cited was drought-induced cattle liquidation that had exacerbated the effects of an existing overcapacity in the packing business. But in an interview with FoodNavigator-USA in early April, Michael Martin, Cargill director of communications, said a contributing factor to the plant idling that laid off 2,000 workers was the reduced production of LFTB at the plant.
Most industry watchers predict that LFTB will make a recovery in time. After all, how can a hungry planet turn its nose up at the recovery of up to 15 lbs. of lean beef per carcass that the LFTB process allows?
Following the media fury, a lot of folks opined that the industry’s failing had been a lack of transparency about the process. However, that was never the intent, says Russell Cross, head of Texas A&M University’s Animal Science Department. What changed was the consumer, he says.
As head of USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) from 1992-1994, Cross approved the use of LFTB in 1993. That approval defined LFTB as meat, which allowed its use in ground beef without being labeled, he says. It was in 2001, after Cross had left FSIS, that the use of ammonium hydroxide in BPI’s production process was approved as a pH control agent.
Cross says LFTB was, and still is, a process based on good science. “I’m not sure how much more BPI could have done back then; the consumer wasn’t calling for the type of transparency that today’s consumer is. The ball just moved on them.”
James Dickson, Iowa State University professor of meat science, concurs. “I’m not sure what else BPI could have done, and that’s onething that has puzzled a lot of folks. BPI was very open for a food company as far as visitors and plant tours. They were much more open than most food companies in general, and an awful lot of meat companies, in terms of what they were doing. It doesn’t seem that they were trying to conceal that from the public.
“Eldon Roth (BPI CEO) is pretty proud of his operation and he wanted people to see it. I can tell you that as an academic trying to take students on plant tours, there aren’t many places that will let you in. BPI didn’t quite have an open-door, take-all-comers approach, but it was pretty close. Just about anybody who asked for a tour or visit was let in,” Dickson says.
Surveys show that at least a third of U.S. consumers today say they want to know more about how their food is produced, Cross says. A significant contributor to that sentiment, he believes, is the millennial generation. It’s a population segment that numbers about 80 million, stretches from birthdates in the late 1970s to early 2000s, and tends to rely on social media for news and communication.
“Consumers are telling us they want to know more about how we produce our food; they want more transparency. It’s up to us to inform them about what and how we use technology to produce their food, and we must use the communication vehicles they use to conduct that outreach,” Cross says.
As an example of the proactive stance the industry must take, Cross points to Farmers Fight, a TAMU student-led effort to reachout to the millennial generation via social media tools. Planning is underway for the first National Agriculture Advocacy Conference, set for Oct. 4-6 on the TAMU campus. Invited are100 student leaders from across the nation to discuss agriculture advocacy.
“Our goal is to share what works and what doesn’t work in order to more effectively tell our positive story of agriculture,” says Victoria Pilger, a TAMU junior animal science major. She’s a founding member of Farmers Fight and its incoming executive director.
She says the effort is designed to mobilize the thousands of students across the nation who are actively engaged and passionate about agriculture. “Farmers Fight believes it’s our turn to stand up and share our story. Our advocate conference will be a meeting to engage student leaders and prepare us all to advocate for agriculture on our respective campuses,” Pilger says.
A Farmers Fight website is expected to debut in June, and the group utilizes a Facebook page on which it regularly posts announcements and discussion.
The bottom line, Cross says is that the industry must get ahead of these issues before it’s too late. Dickson agrees, but says that can be a tough challenge in today’s environment.
“The stock market fell 150 points in just a few minutes,” he says. “That’s an example of what can happen on social media. And the same can be done to any food product.”
Dickson says that potential of a recurrence of another “pink slime” issue is so chilling to food manufacturers and processors that he’s concerned it is stifling innovation in the sector.
“I think, to a degree, the BPI experience has kind of put a damper on some of the approaches to making new, innovative or alternative processes. I have heard some folks in the food industry in general, not just the meat industry, say that after witnessing what happened to BPI with what was a pretty novel process, and how it was misrepresented in the media, they are a lot more cautious about moving forward with real new or innovative technologies than they were a year ago. And that is unfortunate,” Dickson says.
Cross adds that with a growing world population and the resulting need for more food – a doubling of food production by 2050, by some estimates – technology will have to be part of the answer.
“There has to be outreach and we have to communicate with the consumers using the tools they are communicating with. And that’s going to be the social media and things of that nature,” Cross says.
Dickson says he’s confident LFTB will be back. “At the end of the day, it’s still a good product. It’s still lean muscle tissue, and it’s subjected to a process that makes it as safe, or safer, than anything else on the market. So I think it will come back, but it’s going to take time. And that’s unfortunate because BPI now has to go back and basically rebuild a business that there really wasn’t anything wrong with. It will come back, perhaps in a different form, or different usages, but it will come back, and market forces will drive it,” he says.
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