DALLAS – Controversy surrounding lean finely textured beef became a teachable moment for the American Meat Institute, which used the occasion of the AMI International Expo in Dallas to talk about what went wrong, what went right and what industry must do differently should a similar situation arise in the future.
Janet Riley, senior vice president of public affairs for AMI, led an education session about LFTB during which she and a panel of speakers addressed key issues surrounding the LFTB controversy, and the science behind its production. Speakers also described in great detail the economic impact the unprecedented media coverage had on beef markets and demand. They also related the challenges they faced as they tried to tell industry’s side of the LFTB story.
The panel included Jim Dickson, a professor in the Dept. of Animal Science at Iowa State Univ.; Robert Hibbert, a partner at K&L Gates law firm; and Ron Plain, Howard Doane Professor of Agricultural Economics and Extension Economics at the Univ. of Missouri, Columbia.
Dickson talked about the science behind LFTB and the misconceptions he encountered regarding the product. He attributed the story about LFTB being made from scraps that are scraped from the plant floor and tossed into a meat grinder to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. He also discussed centrifugal separation, and how it is used in other food industries, such dairy processing.
“People talk about this technology as if it’s foreign…but in reality we use it a lot,” Dickson said.
Hibbert discussed the labeling issue surrounding LFTB. He explained why ammonium hydroxide, an intervention used to kill foodborne pathogens in beef trim, is a processing aid that manufacturers are not required to include on a label.
He also said “new actors” such as social media, bloggers and plaintiff’s lawyers to name a few, were influencing attitudes about the food industry.
The economic impact of the backlash against LFTB moved beyond lost jobs, according to Plain. For example, the cutout values for fed cattle declined. The price spread between Choice and Select also decreased, he said. Also, lean trimmings became less valuable.
“If consumers think of your product as ‘pink slime’ you’re not likely to sell much of it,” he said. Food is special in that perception depends on the image the food has in an individual’s mind, Plain said. Sometimes, the image overwhelms facts and logic, he added.
Although it remains unclear what precipitated the intense backlash against LFTB, there are many reasons why the issue gained traction among consumers, according to Riley.
The term “pink slime”, which was coined by a former US Department of Agriculture employee, became ingrained in the public conscience and in discussions about LFTB. Also, industry did not have images or video to immediately counteract pictures used in the mainstream media early in the crisis.
Industry organizations such as AMI became overwhelmed by the volume of social media activity and the intense emotions behind many of those communications.
“The emotions in those e-mails were dramatic,” she said.
Industry also underestimated the aggressive coverage of Jim Avila, a broadcast journalist for ABC’s World News Tonight. Riley said Avila had tweeted 75 times about LFTB since March, and there was nine days of reporting on LFTB by ABC News alone in March.
So what can industry do in terms of crisis management in the future if another “food scare” arises? Riley said transparency will be important. In an effort to bring more transparency to the meat industry, AMI will feature Dr. Temple Grandin in a video showing how meat is processed and what are the industry’s best practices.
Hibbert suggested the industry send a broader message to consumers about affordability and safety.
“We’re in the food business, and we’re trying to make sure it’s abundant, affordable and safe,” he said. Industry should try to “overwhelm bad information with better information as quickly as possible.”
Riley also asked attendees to take the information from the education session back to their communities and learn to use social media to engage consumers outside the industry when questions or concerns about meat products or processes arise.