Stop surprising consumers

by Dr. Temple Grandin
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The main reason consumers reacted so violently to the “pink slime” issue is that people hate surprises. Their immediate reaction was “ick, ammonia and pink slime in my burger.” Even though lean finely textured beef (LFTB) is 100-percent beef; it is not what most people expect to be ground beef.

I have talked to many people outside the industry and the one thing that really upset them was that LFTB was not listed on the label. When the product was explained, most people had a different, more positive view. At a recent talk to university students, I explained how separating the beef from fat trimmings saves about 15 lbs. of meat per steer. This adds up to thousands of cattle in a single month. Throwing this nutritious protein out would be sinful. Most people would accept this if LFTB was labeled and put in lower priced hamburger. One may ask why LFTB wasn’t listed on the label. When the process was invented 20 years ago, the industry was living in a different era.

Starbucks had a similar crisis with the use of an extract made from cochineal insects. Both vegans and people who observe kosher dietary laws were upset about this. In both the pink slime and the insect debate, food safety was never an issue. Cochineal extract has been used as a food coloring for years and ammonia is used in many food processes. In both of these, “ick” was a major factor. Starbucks has announced that they will replace cochineal extract with red coloring that will be extracted from tomatoes. Cargill uses citric acid in their LFTB instead of ammonia. To most consumers, citric acid and tomato extract removes a major “ick” factor. When something some people think is really “icky” has to be used, it must be explained. The benefits must be clearly stated.

Need for glass walls

Now that almost every phone has a video camera, the only way the industry can win on most of these issues is total transparency about what they do. When the “pink slime” crisis first hit, Janet Riley at AMI created an excellent video where she explained the LFTB process in an easy-to-understand manner. Unfortunately, the video showed Janet in an office and there were no pictures of a plant to show the LFTB process. Janet should have been narrating while a video of each step of the process was played.

Unfortunately, the people who owned the plants were worried about competitors stealing their process secrets and they were reluctant to release video. It is ridiculous to worry about secrets when a process is 20 years old. Everybody in the industry knows how it works. In all my years of consulting, I have learned that people who attempt to keep old processes secret have obsolete equipment and everybody in the industry knows it is old-fashioned. The people who have the most innovative methods are much more open and only keep research and development and very new processes secret. By sharing ideas, the industry moves forward and becomes more innovative.

Failure to show videos of the complete process the instant the crisis hit sent the wrong message to the consumer. Many consumers think the industry isn’t showing the process because it really is bad and gross – this is not true. We need to show the public that LFTB is a safe, clean process that stops the waste of food.

Dr. Temple Grandin operates Grandin Livestock Systems Inc., Fort Collins, Colo., and is a faculty member in the animal science department at Colorado State Univ.

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