Staying ahead of misinformation

by Bryan Salvage
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When it comes to being attacked by misinformation, rumors, innuendos, half-truths and outright lies, the US meat industry has become an increasingly popular target in recent decades. And too many times, the missteps or wrong doings of one or several people at one company has led to the demonization of the entire industry by special interest groups and the mainstream media.

The best way for companies and industry to combat such attacks is not to ignore the situation and hope the problem fades away...immediate response is required to set the record straight. For example, during the late 1990s and early 2000s, meat irradiation began to catch on despite constant barrages of misinformation being fed to the consumer media by anti-irradiation groups on almost a daily basis. One major reason the technology advanced during this time despite this smear campaign was the leading technology provider then, the now defunct SureBeam Corp., was very proactive in touting the merits of the technology and very quick to respond to unfair/untrue criticisms and media reports. When the technology was hit by a rifle-shot of mistruth, SureBeam immediately responded with a double- barrel shotgun blast of scientific fact and technology truths that quickly silenced the onslaught.

Most recently, lean finely textured beef (LFTB) entered the cross-hairs of sensationalized criticisms that questioned the safe process as well as this ingredient that is used to make hamburger. After thousands of stories were published in the mainstream media stoking this fire by referring to LFTB as “pink slime” and questioning the safety of incorporating ammonium hydroxide during the process, among other things, many large retailers and foodservice operators began dropping ground beef containing LFTB or stopped offering hamburgers containing this ingredient. LFTB proponents ultimately refuted these claims; and the backlash against this campaign continues today. However, one industry insider told me several weeks ago he felt the PR war was lost because proponents should have responded faster.

In early 2009, media reports spread throughout the world like wildfire due to erroneous reports that a fast-spreading influenza outbreak was being caused by a swine flu virus instead of the real culprit – H1N1 influenza. The World Health Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization even issued a joint statement saying that the H1N1 virus causing flu worldwide cannot be transmitted by eating pork. This outbreak was not a food-safety issue.

Despite best efforts to set the record straight, many in the consumer media persisted on referring to this outbreak as swine flu (which was prominently displayed in headlines for months) instead of H1N1. In the end, the average price for hogs dropping drastically and the US pork industry lost millions of dollars in the process.

As witnessed by the most recent LFTB media attacks, the battle against misinformation continues today. “Broadly speaking, we struggle to battle the misinformation that exists about our industry and our products, whether it comes from an unfortunate news story, a misguided Internet rumor or an alarming video,” J. Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of the American Meat Institute, told me earlier this year during an interview. Connecting with association customers through AMI’s outreach programs, such as Meat MythCrushers, will continue to be high on AMI’s list.

On May 3, 2011, AMI in conjunction with the American Meat Science Association (AMSA) launched the Meat MythCrushers campaign, which was designed to reconnect Americans to modern food production and to disprove current myths associated with meat and poultry. This effort was a giant step in trying to set the record straight on a number of myths surrounding topics such as food safety, production methods plus nutrition and animal welfare, as identified by an AMI consumer poll conducted by Harris Interactive.

The campaign centers on a website, http://www.meatmythcrushers.com/, which features science-based information and resources in response to some of the most popular meat and poultry myths held by consumers.

Janet Riley, AMI senior vice president of public affairs, explained why this effort was being made during the launch. When the US Department of Agriculture was created by Congress in 1862, it was called The People’s Department because nine out of 10 Americans lived on a farm. Today, less than 5 percent of Americans live on farms and most US citizens are separated from farming by multiple generations.

As a result, the news media, books and movies are the primary sources for information about how America’s food is produced for many people, Riley said. By using scientific experts, AMI and AMSA hope this campaign will help educate people about the facts regarding the modern food production system.
This website features videos with AMSA academic experts debunking myths for consumers. A companion brochure, including detailed references to support statements, is also available on the website.

The reaction to MythCrushers has been overwhelmingly positive. Riley told me on April 17, “The videos and the information on the web and in the printed brochure are painstakingly referenced and written with an eye toward the consumer,” she said. “We’ve seen good web traffic and solid growth on our Facebook page.”

The Meat MythCrushers Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/meatmythcrushers, was launched May 3, 2011. It is designed to serve as a forum to encourage dialogue about these meat and poultry myths. A new myth was featured and discussed on the page each week for the first three-and-a-half months. This is a great weapon to have in industry’s arsenal.

“Our meat and animal-science community is so motivated to ‘crush myths’ and this program has given them an outlet for their energy,” Riley said. “We will be doing round three this year at the Reciprocal Meat Conference.

“I was so glad that [the MythCrushers program] had already created a video about LFTB with Gary Acuff [Dr. Acuff is Professor & AgriLife Research Faculty Fellow; Director, Center for Food Safety, Texas A&M Univ.] before this enormous frenzy started,” Riley added. “It was invaluable to us in trying to set the record straight and it tells me that we need to continue to stay ahead.”

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