As the furor over using lean finely textured beef in our pre-made hamburgers continues to heat up, Marion Nestle provides a summary of the debate and poses some new questions.
The "pink slime" furor gets curiouser and curiouser. It's hard to keep up, but here's my summary of where we are with this for the moment.
WHAT IS THE FUROR ABOUT?
The best place to start is with Michael Moss's December 30, 2009, investigative report in The New York Times on the ammonia process used by Beef Products, Inc., to make LFTB (lean finely textured beef).
The article contains the first mention of the term "pink slime" as a pejorative for this product.
Moss provides confidential documents detailing the effects of the ammonia processing of LFTB, and revelations of the discrepancy between the United States Department of Agriculture's standards for beef safety and those of its school lunch program.
HOW MUCH LFTB IS USED IN GROUND BEEF?
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal (March 28), Cargill Inc. estimates about 850 million pounds per year.
WHAT IS THE PINK SLIME CRISIS GOING TO COST THE BEEF INDUSTRY?
According to the business press, meat packers are likely to lose a record $101 per head as a result of the pink slime crisis. Multiply that by the 34 million head of cattle slaughtered each year for food. And then there's the economy:
Margins for meat packers have been declining for several months as consumers began to push back against high prices at retail in order to cope with rising gas prices. In response, processors have reduced slaughter rates in an effort to maintain beef prices.
WHO SUPPORTS BPI AND WHY?
BPI is a strong supporter of the Republican party and its candidates. But it is also generous elsewhere.
See, for example, BPI's full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2012. It quotes from "In defense of food safety leadership," by Nancy Donley. Donley is a founder of STOP (Safe Tables Our Priority), an organization of mothers whose children died from eating contaminated hamburger.
After what I personally experienced watching my son suffer and die, I am very skeptical and cynical about for-profit meat companies and their professed commitment to food safety. Not all companies 'walk their talk.' BPI does.
BPI is well known to be the donor of the anonymous gifts to STOP of $250,000 last year and $500,000 the year before (see the tax forms posted on STOP's website).
WHAT IS THE USDA'S POSITION ON LFTB AND BPI?
Obamafoodorama (March 29) reports on USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack's press conference in Iowa on March 28. He joined Governor Terry Bransted, a republican, in defense of LFTB.
Here's what Obamafoodorama says Secretary Vilsack said:
- The product is crucial to fighting childhood obesity.
- This product is safe.... There's no question about it. We've said that hundreds of times and we'll continue to say it.
- It is a "leaner product" than regular ground beef, and crucial for the battle to end childhood obesity. That's one of the reasons we've made it a staple of the school lunch program.
- We are ... concerned about obesity levels, and this is an opportunity for us to ensure that youngsters are receiving a product that is lean and contains less fat.
- Historically the product is less expensive than other products.... For that reason it's been part of the school lunch program.
- [It] doesn't have to be labeled when it is included in ground beef because "it is safe."
Obamafoodorama's report concludes:
Somewhat disappointingly, the Secretary's efforts to defend lean, finely textured beef did not include him digging into a plate of the product and eating it on camera.
WHY IS A DEMOCRATIC SECRETARY GOING TO BAT FOR A COMPANY KNOWN FOR SUPPORTING MITT ROMNEY AND REPUBLICANS?
I can only speculate that it has something to do with Tom Vilsack's wife, Christie, who is running for Iowa's 4th Congressional District. In Iowa, BPI has bipartisan support, and Christie Vilsack says:
LFTB is safe ... it is the women in our community who can put BPI back on it's feet.
I think one of the biggest strengths in this audience today are all the women here, because we tend to be the ones who go to the grocery stores, and we're the ones who choose the products that we bring home and feed to our families.
No concerns at all. It's a safe product, and these are wonderful people who work there.
WHO STANDS TO BENEFIT FROM THE PINK SLIME FUROR?
Wendy's for one. I saw the company's full-page ad in USA Today and The New York Times (March 30):
Where's the pure beef? At Wendy's that's where! We use nothing but pure, 100 percent fresh, never-frozen North American beef.
We've never used fillers, additives, preservatives, flavor boosters, or ammonia treatments.
We've never used 'pink slime,' and we never will.
IF LFTB IS SAFE, ISN'T IT ACCEPTABLE?
I've heard this argument before. It's the same one used for GMOs. As I discuss in my book Safe Food, even if technological processes like this are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable -- especially if they are not labeled and do not give consumers a choice.
WHAT SHOULD BPI AND OTHER COMPANIES DO WHEN IN A CRISIS LIKE THIS?
- Did not trust consumers with the truth.
- Did not openly explain how the food product was made and what additives and ingredients it contained.
- Ignored dissenting expert opinions in memos and emails.
To rebuild public trust and sales, Marler advises, do not:
- Shoot the messenger.
- Threaten legal action.
- Play the political card.
- Make political supporters eat your product or say how safe it is in front of the national media.
What should companies do? Simple:
- Just tell the truth.
- Tell consumers what they already know.
- Tell the public how the product is made and what is in it.
- Tell consumers the real benefits of the product.
- Post test results online.
- Invite the public, not politicians, to your plant for a tour and a taste test.
- Bottom line: If you have nothing to hide, hide nothing.
MY LAST QUESTIONS -- FOR NOW:
- Why are we allowing the school lunch program to be the dumping ground for cheap food?
- Why don't we have a food safety system in place that requires beef to be safe in the first place -- so it doesn't have to be treated with ammonia?
We should all be asking these questions and demand that our elected leaders ask them too -- and insist on answers.
This post originally appeared on Food Politics, an Atlantic partner site.