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Slimeageddon 2012: Who is really to blame for the pink slime debacle?

By Elaine Watson , 02-Apr-2012

With lean finely textured beef (LFTB) now off the menu at some of the nation’s biggest retailers and fast food chains, recriminations are flying thick and fast over who is to blame for the whole sorry, pink, slimy mess currently engulfing the food industry.

Jamie Oliver? Partly. The media? Obviously. But they are not the only ones. 

Journalists have unquestionably contributed to much of the hysteria, but many food manufacturers are privately pointing the finger at their customers - food retailers and foodservice giants, who have shown that once again, if there is a bandwagon, they will jump on it, regardless of the science.

More mixed messages

If consumers see the industry saying one thing (ingredient X is safe) and doing another (but we're dropping it anyway), is it any wonder they are suspicious? 

Actions speak louder than words to consumers - who don't read the small print and don't trust the food industry. If ingredient X really is safe and nutritious as the beef industry claims, they will say, then why have some of the biggest names in food retail/service dropped it like a hot potato?  

Just as slapping ‘no artificial sweeteners’ or ‘no HFCS’ on pack sends a message, so does dropping lean finely textured beef. No one will remember the bits in the press releases saying 'just so you know, there isn’t actually anything wrong with this stuff...'

Could things have played out differently?

Of course, retailers that don’t listen to consumers won’t stay in business for long. But brands as big as the ones caught up in the pink slime fiasco (Walmart, Kroger, Safeway, SuperValu, McDonald's, Burger King) have the capacity to influence public debate as well as react to it.

And are they really serving consumers’ best interests when they admit that the media debate – however ill informed – is not just influencing, but driving, their decision-making?

Could things have played out differently if the whole of the industry – retailers, fast food giants, manufacturers, ingredients suppliers and trade associations – presented a united and consistent message to the media the minute it hit the headlines?

After all, no one can argue that they didn’t see this one coming.  LFTB has been used in food production for years. And even the term ‘pink slime’ isn’t new (thanks Jamie).

Indeed, the firms producing LFTB – Cargill and Beef Products Inc - have been engaged in a dialogue with retailers about this issue for months. Even the National Consumers League – which is rarely on good terms with the food industry – has come out very strongly in support.

So why the knee-jerk response?

Are decisions based on science or media headlines?

I don’t blame retailers for being pragmatic. The media scrutinizes big food companies very carefully, and no one wants to be on the wrong side of a hot issue.   

But they can’t have it both ways.

When it comes to government proposals to curb ‘junk’ food marketing to kids, the message from industry has been crystal clear. We’ll do it when you supply hard evidence to prove it’s the right thing to do, because food policy should be based on sound science, not media headlines.

But when it comes to their policies on LFTB, GMOs, HFCS, aspartame and BPA, it seems those very same media headlines are the very core of the decision making process, and hard scientific evidence goes out of the window.

I have lost count of the number of times I have been sent a press statement reading: “Ingredient Y is safe and legal, but we won’t be using it anymore because consumers are worried about it.”

Pragmatic? Certainly. Helpful? Not really.

David Acheson: Pink slime debacle distracts attention from real food safety issues

Dr David Acheson, former FDA Associate Commissioner of Foods and now head of the food and import safety division at consultancy Leavitt Partners, told FoodNavigator-USA he was dispirited by the whole 'pink slime' fiasco, although not surprised.

“As soon as one big brand drops something, you are going to get a cascade effect. They could have tried to grind it out until the right message finally got across – that this isn’t a safety issue - but that would have involved presenting a united front, and that’s just not the way things work in this industry.

“The sad thing is that things like this distract from the more important issues that really do impact food safety.”

As my colleague Caroline Scott-Thomas observed last week : "There are genuine problems with our food supply. But this isn’t one of them."

NCL: Retailers should have taken a deep breath, not pushed the panic button

Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, also believes things could have turned out differently had retailers taken a “deep breath” instead of “pushing the panic button”.

She added: “The misinformation has unduly harmed a company [Beef Products Inc - which has laid off hundreds of staff] — and its employees- that is recognized as an industry leader in food safety.

"This is tragic, as they have been harmed by a completely unfounded conclusion that their product is not safe. From NCL’s standpoint, the record must be corrected.”

Lessons learned: A picture tells a thousand words...

So what can we learn from the whole sorry affair?

I’ll give the last word to Benjamin England, founder of legal practice Benjamin L. England & Associates and consultancy FDAImports.com, who makes three points...

First, consumer opinion is informed just as much by the entertainment media as it is “official” sources like the meat industry or government agencies. 

“Second, brands, companies and associations should be poised to respond during a food safety crisis (or perceived one) and communicate not just the facts but also the necessary sentiment to be heard by consumers.

“Third, images and video are crucial to public perception and are more important than words.”

Click here to read about the new 'Requiring Easy and Accurate Labeling of Beef Act' (REAL Beef Act), a bill introduced Friday by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree that would require products containing LFTB to have a label at the final point of sale.

Click here to read about ground beef processor AFA Foods Inc., which has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection today, blaming the "unfounded public outcry over the use of boneless lean beef trimmings". 

Elaine Watson is a correspondent on FoodNavigator-USA.com and NutraIngredients-USA.com. An award-winning journalist, Elaine has been writing about the food industry for more than 10 years for a range of print and online trade publications including The Grocer, Food Manufacture and Food Ingredients, Health & Nutrition.

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