Mar 30, 2012

Media mayhem

This episode with Beef Products Inc. (BPI) is a real tragedy. Last week, BPI shut down three of their four plants and temporarily laid of 650 people at those plants. It’s amazing that an elite segment of the general media was willing to throw them under the bus, especially after BPI tried to take the high road, invite these journalists in and explain to these folks what the product was, in an open transparent way. But all too often in today’s media, journalists just can’t allow inconvenient facts to get in the way of a sensational story. It’s difficult to even use the term journalist to describe these writers.


However, BPI knew this story was coming and didn’t really do much to protect their product. Let’s face it, there isn’t anything pretty about the meat business other than seeing a bunch of cows in kneehigh grass. It is not for the faint of heart to watch a meat processing plant do their work.

Unfortunately, the meat business has a history of issues they have had to deal with over the years and you could start the story with Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle,” which resulted in the meat inspection act in the early 1900s. But look at more recent issues such as BSE or hormones and pathogen elimination.

The industry does its best to support their causes with sound science but it’s becoming very clear that the science doesn’t matter. The science on Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) was done a long time ago and nobody seemed to care.

Now it’s time to start the rebuilding process for LFTB. It is a valuable product and it certainly isn’t going to the scrap heap of spent ideas. BPI held a media day last week at their Dakota Dunes plant. BPI invited Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and several state governors to tour the facility and hold a press conference about how safe the product is. Vilsack said USDA has no intentions of banning the product and he reaffirmed its safety.

One of the disturbing aspects of the story was when grocery stores realized the bad press on the product, several major chains dropped the product and ran for the door. Hy-Vee stores were going to drop the product, too, but heard from customers saying that they wanted it. They said in a press release, “Following our recent decision to stop purchasing ground beef with LFTB, we heard from many customers who asked us to continue carrying this product. They’ve sent us a clear message: they want a choice when it comes to ground beef, and they want to support companies that provide thousands of jobs in our Midwest trade area.” Hy-Vee will offer both types of ground beef products.

We know the product is clean and wholesome in the beef industry but consumers feel like they had a fast one pulled on them because they had never heard of the product but they have been consuming it for years, with absolutely no problems.

There is a lot of misinformation running through the internet about the product. Whether it’s right or wrong doesn’t really matter. For most consumers, perception is reality, and if consumers perceive LFTB as an inferior product, it may be a difficult journey for BPI. Although it does appear that most retailers are willing to keep using it and offer their customers a choice.

One thing for sure, the product could certainly use a better name. LFTB isn’t exactly an appetizing name for this beef product and we certainly know the term “Pink Slime” doesn’t have positive connotations. Perhaps BPI should do some market research and come up with a new savory name.

We have to remember that consumers returned to beef after the BSE issue; they have never really turned away from ground beef after multitudes of pathogen safety issues. The industry has done a good job of correcting some issues and providing consumers confidence that beef and meat is safe to consume. No one in the meat industry is immune to these consumer issues and that needs to be in the back of every food processor’s mind.

Today the news moves fast and with social media, a product can be disparaged in a heartbeat, and it appears at this point, little can be done to minimize the damage that misinformation on the social media can do. It would be an absolute shame if BPI went out of business for doing nothing wrong. But, perhaps because they didn’t do some things right, they find themselves in this situation. But hindsight is always much clearer. — PETE CROW