On Friday, Beef Products Inc., the manufacturer of Lean Beef Trimmings (commonly referred to as “pink slime”) took out a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal to address its growing public relations crisis. I didn’t see the text of the advertisement until today. (Here is a photo of it, which you can read by using the zoom feature on your browser.)
As you will see, the ad is divided into two parts. To the left is a reprint of the article in Food Safety News by Nancy Donley, the food safety advocate who tragically lost a child to E. coli and who claims that opponents of lean, finely textured beef (LFTB) are standing in the way of modern food safety measures. I addressed Ms. Donley’s argument the same day her piece in Food Safety News appeared. You can read my open letter to her (to which she has not yet responded) here.
On the right side of the Wall Street Journal ad is a letter from Eldon Roth, founder of BPI, entitled “‘Pink Slime’ Libel To Cost This Country Jobs.” He writes:
Before last summer we could not have imagined the personal, professional, financial and spiritual impact of the campaign of lies and deceit that have been waged against our company and the lean beef we produce. But over the last several weeks, that campaign has been joined by entertainment media, tabloid journalists, so-called national news — and all to what end? The clear goal expressed by the campaign organizer — put BPI out of business.
It is simply amazing how this mis-information campaign can take a company and product that has long been recognized for its quality and safety and turn the public perception so negative that it now may result in the loss of over 3,000 jobs . . . .
This ad was followed by an announcement today that BPI is temporarily suspending operations at three of its four plants. According to the Associated Press, “About 200 employees at each of the three plants will get full salary and benefits for 60 days during the suspension. . . .”
I do not know if Mr. Roth refers to me when he speaks of “the campaign organizer” but, assuming that he does, I would like to take this opportunity to respond to his accusations, as well as the news of plant suspensions and potential job losses.
When I started my Change.org petition on March 6th, I had one simple, clearly defined goal: to ask USDA to revisit its practice of providing school districts with ground beef containing LFTB. The USDA/schools petition went viral, garnering almost a quarter of a million signatures in a little over a week (and now exceeding that target). USDA responded to the outpouring of concern by offering schools the option of buying beef without this filler. And that might have been the end of this story.
But clearly something else arose out of my petition and the media coverage associated with it. Consumers learned — many for the first time — that USDA allows LFTB to be mixed into the nation’s ground beef supply, up to 15%, without any labeling to disclose that fact. Reportedly, 70% of beef in this country now contains LFTB.
And as it turns out, consumers are quite unhappy about this fact.
Some people are concerned about food safety, given the pathogenic nature of the raw material used by BPI to make the product. Its safety record, though now admirable, was somewhat more troubling between 2005 and 2009 when E. coli and salmonella were repeatedly found in its product, as reported by the New York Times. Some consumers – rightly or wrongly — worry about the use of ammonium hydroxide in the processing of their food. Some people consider the inclusion of an unlabeled filler to be a form of economic adulteration, in that their package labeled 100% ground beef might only be 85% ground chuck or ground round and the rest a gelatinous meat filler. And others claim there are aesthetic differences between beef with LFTB and pure ground beef.
Whether any or all of these concerns are valid is almost beside the point. Our free market is founded on informed consumer choice, but in this case USDA deprived consumers of the ability to make that choice when it made the controversial decision to treat LFTB as “ground beef,” no different from ground chuck or ground round.
Now that the truth about LFTB is coming to light, BPI’s business may be suffering. But this consumer reaction should not come as much of a surprise to the company; why else did BPI, according to the Times, lobby USDA back in 2001 to exempt their product from labeling?
As I said in an interview on the very first day of my USDA/schools campaign, the use of LFTB in ground beef is “one of those practices that can thrive only in obscurity.” Now exposed under intense media scrutiny, BPI is discovering that this is indeed the case.
Though accused of waging a campaign of lies, libel and deceit, I have taken care in every step of this campaign to source my facts (obviously I am limited to publicly available information about LFTB) and to avoid fear-mongering. Indeed, even at the risk of alienating NPR and the reporter who interviewed me there, I immediately demanded a retraction — one which was read on the air the next day — when I felt the reporter had portrayed me as someone who is stoking unfounded fears about ammonium hydroxide by comparing it to a household “cleaning agent.”
Finally, I’d like to address the issue of potential job losses. The real human cost arising out of this controversy troubles me deeply. Mr. Roth’s letter to the contrary, it has never been my intention, stated or implicit, to “put BPI out of business.” Rather, it is my belief that, like any other company, BPI should be free to sell its product so long as it continues to do so in a safe — and transparent — manner.
The future of LFTB will and should be determined by well informed consumers. If my petition contributed in any small way to a national conversation about this product, that is only to the good.