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A Meat Mea Culpa: What Went Wrong With 'Pink Slime'

May cover of Meatingplace, the meat processing industry trade magazine
courtesy Meatingplace
May cover of Meatingplace, the meat processing industry trade magazine

It came as no surprise to us when outrage over "pink slime," the catchy nickname given to lean finely textured beef (LFTB), went viral a couple of months ago.

Murky government rules, off-limits meatpacking floors, and a "gotcha" media mentality have created a fear and mistrust that's left the public highly opinionated but often woefully misinformed about where our food comes from.

What is surprising is that the "pink slime" debacle has forced the meat industry to admit it needs to open up.

Enter Meatingplace, the meat processing industry's trade magazine. This month's striking cover is simply black with a neon pink all-caps headline: "SLIMED," followed by the subhead: "what the hell happened."

The article, co-authored by four of the magazine's editors, shows how negative stories on Beef Products Inc.'s LFTB (and Cargill's similar FTB) exploded "like spontaneous combustion" on social media this spring.What was odd, they say, is that there was no recall or big announcement to prompt the frenzy. The term "pink slime" was coined by a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee years ago, and it returned with a vengeance months after major beef buyers like McDonald's announced they would stop using it.

Here's what went wrong, according to Meatingplace:

1. Social media has made the bully pulpit much bigger. The distinctions between journalists and the "guy down the street" are blurred on the web, the magazine notes, allowing non-experts to spread half-truths quickly and easily. "It's like putting a gun in the hands of a 6-year old," says Lisa M. Keefe, Meatingplace editor and one of the article's authors tells The Salt.

2. That gross name. Consumers thought "slime doesn't sound like something I want to eat," Barry Carpenter, CEO of the National Meat Association and a former depute administrator at USDA, tells Meatingplace.

3. We are visual animals. The pictures of pink slime popping up everywhere — some of which were not actually beef, according to the editors — made it hard for people to look away, Keefe says.

4. Government dithering. USDA's response was "late and bipolar," Meatingplace says. The agency affirmed the safety of LFTB "a full 10 days" after the first wave of web-based articles appeared in March. But later, the agency said schools could make their own decisions about whether to order it.

"The silence was deafening to consumers," the article says. Supermarkets dropped the product and BPI eventually had to lay off thousands of people. Worth noting — the beef industry was already in trouble over soft beef demand, but "pink slime" seemed to have tipped the scales for some.

5. The perception of deception. Many of us have no idea where food comes from. And, in the wake of bank foreclosures, Bernie Madoff, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae scandals, "consumers are loaded for corporate bear and have the means to make their anger heard," Meatingplace says.

"Add that to the meat industry's long-standing aversion to inviting the public to witness the nitty-gritty process of making sausage ... and consumers think the meat companies are hiding something," the authors say.

(For the whole Meatingplace timeline on the "pink slime" story click here.)

So what's next?

Improve consumer education and make "some of the industry's more controversial operations, like slaughter," more transparent, the article says.

In fact, within days of the social media explosion, BPI did just that. They went on YouTube to respond to concerns about using ammonia in its beef production and created the site pinkslimeisamyth.com (now beefisbeef.com) with safety endorsements from scientists. But even though science was on the company's side, it didn't seem to change public opinion much.

BPI execs did not respond to Meatingplace's requests for interviews for their article.

The bottom line? The meat industry as a whole needs to change how it communicates before a crisis, Keefe says. "If you're playing defense, forget it."

Rational people can argue over whether we should be raising and processing livestock in a way that makes them more susceptible to pathogens like E. coli and requires the use of agents like ammonia to kill those bugs. But the fact is, we are, and we do.

We can also debate whether LFTB should have been labeled from the start, or whether it should be now.

So if a little more sunshine comes of this pink slime thing, that can't be bad.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

April Fulton is a former editor with NPR's Science Desk and a contributor to The Salt, NPR's Food Blog.

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