Standing Up for Citizen Journalism

Back in July, many of you saw an Associated Press story which reported that “[s]everal food writers, including a New York Times reporter, have been subpoenaed by a meat producer as part of its $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit against ABC in regards to the network’s coverage of a beef product dubbed ‘pink slime’ by critics.”

Because of my successful Change.org petition in 2012, some of you asked whether I, too, had received a subpoena from Beef Products Inc. (BPI), the plaintiff in this lawsuit and the maker of lean, finely textured beef (“LFTB,” aka “pink slime.”)  I didn’t speak about it publicly at the time but, based on a motion filed by BPI in South Dakota state court, I knew a subpoena was likely on its way.  In mid-August, BPI’s process server showed up at my door.

Although I’m not a party to or otherwise involved in BPI’s lawsuit, BPI wants all of my private communications in 2012 with the parties they’ve sued, including employees of ABC News and the two former USDA microbiologists who first expressed concern about the meat filler in private emails, some of which were later made public by the New York Times.

I do have information responsive to this request, but I’m asserting the protection of the First Amendment and Texas’s “shield law” (a statute giving journalists a qualified privilege against disclosure of their material in cases like this) so that my confidential communications, source material and work product remain private

Here’s why I felt it was important to take this stand.

Whether the issue is GMO labelinganimal welfare practices, or the disclosure of questionable ingredients — from the yellow dye in mac-in-cheese to the LFTB hidden in ground beef — consumers clearly care about food transparency.  And precisely because we’re not affiliated with traditional media outlets, food policy bloggers like me have the freedom to focus exclusively on such issues, often devoting considerable time and effort to inform readers about, and advocate for, these causes.  But if bloggers and other “citizen journalists” are going to face lawyers and subpoenas whenever they gather information on potentially controversial topics, they may well think twice before they post.  And that sort of chilling effect ultimately harms us all.

I’ll keep you informed of any developments with respect to the subpoena.  And thanks to my attorney – better known around here as “Mr. TLT” – for taking time out of his own busy work schedule to represent me in this matter.

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Politico Spotlights the Power of Consumer Food Petitions

Just FYI, this weekend’s lead story on Politico, “Food Fight: Consumers Revolt Online,” discusses the ever-growing impact of online petitions in changing our food supply.

The story features my successful Change.org petition in 2012 regarding the use of lean, finely textured beef (aka “pink slime”) in school food, and goes on to discuss subsequent petition campaigns on food-related issues.  The story is also slated to appear in Monday’s print version of the magazine.

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Moms, “Food Fears” and the Power of the Internet

Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, has published a new study in the journal Food Quality and Preference entitled “Ingredient-Based Food Fears and Avoidance: Antecedents and Antidotes.”  This study, co-authored by Aner Tal and Adam Brumberg, seeks to determine why people – mothers in particular — develop so-called “food fears” about certain ingredients (such as sodium, fat, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, MSG and lean finely textured beef) and what the food industry and government can do about it.

The study’s ultimate conclusion, that “food fears” can be addressed by “providing information regarding an ingredient’s history or the other products in which it is used,” is hardly controversial.  But some other things about this study raise red flags, starting with the fact that what might be entirely legitimate concerns about particular ingredients are uniformly (and patronizingly) characterized as “food fears,” and that the study’s findings have been overblown and mischaracterized not just in the media but in Dr. Wansink’s own public statements about his data.

I haven’t yet mentioned the fact that the study was funded in part by the Corn Refiners Association, the trade group representing manufacturers of the very “food fear” examined, i.e., concerns about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  While the study never takes a position on whether that particular “food fear” is legitimate (and, by the way, I’m totally agnostic on the HFCS vs. sugar question), Wansink’s own statements in the media would certainly be reassuring to anyone worried about HFCS — and that alone is troubling given the CRA’s financial ties to the study. Here’s Wansink speaking to Today:

“We’ve been looking at a lot of these food misconceptions,” says food psychologist Brian Wansink, the John S. Dyson Professor or Marketing at Cornell University. “It’s kind of crazy. How do these things get started and get traction without really any evidence at all?”

But putting aside CRA’s involvement, I’m far more troubled by Wansink’s and the media’s characterization of the study’s findings.  Here’s the New York Daily News‘ take on the study:

“Fear of food containing controversial ingredients may be fueled by Facebook. A new study suggests that people who avoid additives like MSG, sodium benzoate and pink slime get most of their information from what they see on social media sites and elsewhere on the Internet.”

And here’s Todays summary:

“Soy causes cancer.” “Gluten may lead to autism.” “There’s yoga mat material in your sandwich!” “Sugar feeds cancer!”

Are your Facebook friends making you afraid to eat? New research in the journal Food Quality and Preference identifies who fears food the most —and it’s probably those of us most addicted to social media.

In other words, the more we share, the more we scare.

People who feared food the most were better educated, but find most of their food facts from Facebook newsfeeds, Twitter, blogs, or friends.

In addition to suffering from misconceptions about food, they also feel strongly about sharing these opinions on social media or their own blogs.

“Compared to the general population, they have a higher need to tell other people about their opinion,” [Wansink] adds. “It ends up unnecessarily causing fear or causes some sort of nervousness.”

And in Wansink’s own YouTube video created to promote the study, he tells us that people with “really bad ingredient food fears have three things in common:”

First of all, they tend to hate the foods the product’s in, almost more than the [unintelligible] ingredient itself, meaning they tend to hate potato chips or candy or soft drinks almost more than the ingredients themselves.

Second of all, they get most of their information . . . from the Internet, they look at their favorite websites, they don’t get it from mainstream media and they certainly don’t get it from health care professionals.

The third thing they have in common is that they are much more likely to need social approval.

The problem is, Wansink’s study simply does not support these characterizations of individuals who get their food information from the Internet, and Wansink’s own recap of his study is in some ways as grossly inaccurate as the media reports I cite.  Here’s why.

The Study Did Not Address Social Media At All

In a survey of 1,008 women who had two or more children, the question posed to respondents about where they obtained information about food ingredients did not include the words “Facebook,” “Twitter,” “newsfeed” or even the more general term “social media.” Instead, respondents were simply asked if they obtained such information from “Internet/Online,” an incredibly broad descriptor which could include anything from the sketchiest of blogs to the website of the Institute of Medicine.

So, in fact, the study has nothing at all to say about the role of Facebook, Twitter or other social media per se in stoking “food fears.”

The Study Failed to Distinguish Between Types of Online Media 

Wansink also contrasts what he sees as the largely biased Internet with more trustworthy “mainstream media,” but without acknowledging that almost every local and national news outlet operating in traditional media now also has its own website.  (In fact, where did I find Wansink’s own study, the news coverage about it, and every other citation in this post?  Online, of course.)  Moreover, in this era of ever-growing media segmentation along ideological lines, just because a news source is considered “mainstream” hardly rules out the possibility of political and other biases in its reporting on food-related issues.

So when Wansink says in his video that people with “food fears” “look at their favorite websites, they don’t get [food news] from mainstream media,” he has no basis at all on which to make this key distinction.  Yes, this subset of respondents may turn to the Internet for food news more than they turn to newspapers or television, but once they’re on the Internet we have absolutely no idea if they’re reading the New York Times or the website of an uninformed blogger.

And, by the way, the Pew Research Internet Project finds that Internet use goes up in direct correlation with one’s level of education, which runs counter to the clear implication that only the less informed or less sophisticated person would choose the Internet over more traditional news sources for their food news.

Conclusions About Sharing “Food Fears” on Social Media Are Entirely Unsupported

As noted, Today reports that moms with “food fears” “feel strongly about sharing these opinions on social media or their own blogs,” and Wansink notes that “they have a higher need to tell other people about their opinion.”  In his video, he says such people “are much more likely to need social approval.” (Emphasis mine.)

But while the study did find that “some individuals who avoid ingredients may have a greater need for social approval among their reference group than those with a more moderate view,” the study’s authors were forced to admit that “such effects were small in our sample.”  So Wansink’s “much more likely” characterization is patently false. 

And even if this finding were significant, the supposed need for social approval was not measured by respondents’ use of social media or blogs.  Rather, it was measured using a standard “social desirability” assessment tool that has nothing to do with social media, and also by asking respondents if they agreed with two statements (“It is important to me that my friends know that I buy Organic Foods and Beverages” and “It is important to me that my friends know that I buy Natural Foods and Beverages”), neither of which have anything to do with “food fears” or social media.

So the study did not in any way establish one of the main “hooks” we’re now seeing in news coverage, i.e., that people with “food fears” feel compelled to share these fears with others on Facebook and Twitter.

Those With “Food Fears” Are Not “Haters” of Junk Food

Wansink tells us in his YouTube video that those with “food fears” actually “hate” the product in which the feared ingredient is found more than the ingredient itself.  Specifically, he tells us, the study found that they “tend to hate potato chips or candy or soft drinks almost more than the ingredients themselves.”

Now here’s what Wansink’s study actually found.  Participants were asked to rate the healthfulness of four foods (yogurt, granola, pre-sweetened cereal and cookies).  Some participants were then told that these four products contained HFCS and among that subset, the “healthy” rating went down for yogurt, granola and pre-sweetened cereal, but not for cookies (presumably because cookies are not thought to be healthful in the first place.)

And that’s it.  Not a word in the study about “potato chips, candy or soft drinks.”  Not a word about “hating.”  But Wansink apparently likes this fictional finding so much he mentions it in his video not once, but twice.

What’s Really Going On Here?

Despite a troubling lack of scientific support, Wansink seems intent on using his study to paint an unflattering portrait of those who obtain information about food ingredients online.  These moms are militant “haters” of soda, candy and chips, they are so uninformed that they can be misled by inaccurate online sources, yet they share this false information on social media out of a need to increase their social currency.  Wansink is equally critical of the Internet itself, going so far as to say in his promotional video that “Reading about food ingredients on the Web.  It’s one of the worst things you can do if you want the facts. . . ” (Emphasis mine.)

Why does Wansink seem so intent on demonizing the Internet and social media and those who rely on those outlets for food information?  In the end, who benefits from these characterizations?

To the great consternation of the processed food industry, it is becoming ever more apparent that the Internet and social media are extremely powerful tools for advancing various food-related causes, from aiding grassroots activism, to spreading viral videos promoting sustainable food practices or decrying children’s junk food advertising, to making possible online petitions like the one I started in 2012, which garnered a quarter of a million signatures and within nine days led the USDA to change one of its school food policies.

Indeed, since my 2012 Change.org victory, online petitions in particular have become a favored tool among some food activists and, in my observation, petitions which narrowly target a specific food ingredient (what Wansink would no doubt refer to as creating a “food fear”) are far more likely to succeed. That’s because a broadly ambitious but nebulously stated goal (“Corporations: stop putting questionable chemicals in our food!”) will not cause any one company to feel pressured into action, but a highly specific demand targeted at a single entity (“PepsiCo: remove BVO from Gatorade!” or “Kraft: remove artificial yellow food dye from mac-n-cheese!”) effectively puts one company in an uncomfortable hot seat — and offers the company a clear path to acceding to the petitioner’s request if it so chooses.

I accept the criticism leveled at narrowly crafted petitions (including my own in 2012) that, if successful, they can claim only very marginal victories.  But until the food industry loses its current hold over our elected officials, making possible more sweeping changes to our food system, I do believe that even a narrowly focused food petition can have a salutary ripple effect.

When we hear that Gatorade and Kraft mac n’ cheese contain ingredients that are banned in other countries, we start asking questions about FDA’s approval process for food additives. When we learn that slaughterhouse scraps must be treated with ammonium hydroxide to make them fit for human consumption, we start wondering why so many pathogens are on the meat in the first place, raising still larger issues about today’s methods of industrial meat production. Each time a single-ingredient food petition is launched, it lifts the curtain on one small aspect of the American food supply and many people, including those in the media, start asking more pointed questions about what exactly is in our food and how it is made.

The food industry would no doubt prefer a return to the days when it alone controlled the narrative about food ingredients and food processing. Now, though, for better or worse, anyone with a computer can write a blog post, post a video or start an online petition about a food-related issue.  If I ran a food company these days, I’m sure I would be lying awake at night, worried that the next Internet food campaign could have one of my own products in its sights.

So what better way to combat this growing threat than to delegitimize both the message (concerns about ingredients are “crazy” “food fears”) and the medium (seeking food information on the Internet is “the worst thing you can do.”)  It doesn’t hurt to also create an unflattering cartoon of the message’s recipient, the hapless, freaked out “mom:”

Courtesy of Cornell Food and Brand Lab
Courtesy of Cornell Food and Brand Lab

But unfortunately for food companies, the Internet genie is out of the bottle and there’s no turning back.  So instead of commissioning studies that demonize the Internet, social media and/or “moms with food fears,” food companies should pocket that money and instead take to heart the one simple lesson to be gleaned from the many recent successes in Internet food activism:

CONSUMERS WANT TRANSPARENCY.

If a food corporation is currently engaging in any practice or using any ingredient which would not survive public opinion should it ever come to light, that company is taking a serious public relations risk in this new Internet age.

And that, in my view, is the real “food fear” lurking behind Wansink’s latest study.*

_______________

* This is not the first time a Wansink study’s findings have been overblown in ways which arguably aid the study’s sponsor.  My school-food-blogging colleague Stacy Whitman offered an excellent critique of a widely publicized Wansink study claiming that school chocolate milk bans, which are supported by many childhood obesity experts but opposed by the dairy industry, are likely to “backfire.”  In addition to refuting several aspects of the study on its own merits, Whitman pointed out that the study had been sponsored by the USDA, which promotes dairy consumption and has ties to MilkPEP, a well-funded milk processors’ marketing group. This photo of Wansink, also shared by Whitman in her post, did nothing to alleviate concerns about a possible pro-dairy bias in the presentation of the study’s data.

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GMO, “Pink Slime” and Labeling Transparency

Ground Beef Isolated on WhiteEarlier this month, the New York Times‘ editorial board published an editorial entitled “Labels for Controversial Ingredients.”  In it, the Times mentioned the recent failure of a Washington State ballot initiative which would have mandated labeling for genetically modified organisms (GMO) and then stated:

Instead of requiring labels by law, it makes sense to let the food companies decide whether and how to inform consumers.

To demonstrate that consumers can trust food companies to do the right thing, the Times pointed to a recent announcement by Cargill that it will now label finely textured beef, aka “pink slime” in its ground beef products:

Last year, consumer opposition led some grocery chains to stop buying products containing the substance. Cargill conducted research and found that consumers “overwhelmingly” wanted the products clearly labeled.

The overarching point of the Times editorial seemed to be that corporations would be better served just labeling GMO rather than spending enormous resources fighting against state ballot initiatives, and that once labeled, consumers might not care that much about GMO in the end.  As a proponent of labeling transparency in general, not just with respect to GMO, I wholeheartedly agree.

But to the extent the Times was pointing to Cargill’s announcement as a reason not to pursue legislation requiring the labeling of controversial food ingredients, I felt (having played a role in the 2012 “pink slime” controversy) a need to respond.  I sent a letter to the paper the next day and then totally forgot about it.  But then I realized yesterday that I hadn’t seen any letters published by the Times, pro or con, regarding this piece — apparently it chose not to publish any  — and I thought I’d share my response here.

To the Editor:

When it comes to transparency and food labeling, the Times editorial board (“Labels for Controversial Ingredients” 11/7/13)  favors voluntary disclosure by corporations over ballot initiatives which would legally require the disclosure of controversial ingredients like genetically modified organisms. In support of its position, the Times applauds Cargill’s recent decision to voluntarily label lean finely textured beef or LFTB — dubbed “pink slime” — in its ground beef products, after the company’s consumer research found that “consumers ‘overwhelmingly’ wanted the products clearly labeled.”

But let’s please remember that Cargill didn’t conduct its consumer research or change its labeling in a vacuum.  Most Americans had no idea that “pink slime” was in 70% of our nation’s ground beef supply until widespread news reports exposed that fact last spring, and it was evidently such an unwelcome surprise that stores began dropping the product in response, causing serious economic harm to its manufacturers.   Without that blinding spotlight of media attention and the resulting impact on Cargill’s bottom line (an 80% drop in demand  according to the company), do any of us believe Cargill would now be a champion of labeling transparency?

The Times seems to be telling us, “Just relax and trust Big Food to tell you what you want to know.”  But Big Food acts in its own commercial interests and virtually every advance in labeling transparency we’ve achieved so far (nutrition fact boxes, allergen and trans fat disclosures, etc.) has been the result of legislative edict, not acts of corporate beneficence.

– Bettina Elias Siegel

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Ex-BPI Employee Dismisses “Pink Slime” Lawsuit Against Me, ABC and Jamie Oliver

Back in December I told you that Bruce Smith, a former environmental health and safety officer at Beef Products Inc., filed a pro se lawsuit in Nebraska state court against me, ABC News, Jim Avila, Diane Sawyer and Jamie Oliver.   In his complaint, Mr. Smith claimed to have suffered the negligent infliction of emotional distress due to the loss of his job at BPI last May, a job loss which he alleged arose out the controversy over lean, finely textured beef (more popularly known as “pink slime”).

The case was subsequently removed by the defendants to federal court and about three weeks ago it was voluntarily dismissed by Mr. Smith.  To my knowledge, Mr. Smith has made no public comment regarding his dismissal of the case.

A second lawsuit arising out of the “pink slime” controversy continues, however.  That case, filed by BPI against ABC News, Jim Avila, Diane Sawyer, a former BPI employee and two former USDA microbiologists, seeks $1.2 billion in damages.  I’ll continue to provide updates on the BPI litigation as warranted.

I’d like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the many people who offered assistance and support while the Smith litigation was pending against me, with special thanks to attorney Kenneth White of the Popehat blog and to the Online Media Legal Network at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

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Minnesota Health Official: Man’s Death Likely Caused by Tainted LFTB

The New York Daily News reported over the weekend on a lawsuit which alleges that the death of a 62-year-old Minnesota man was caused by the consumption of lean, finely textured beef (aka “LFTB,” and more commonly known as “pink slime”) tainted with E coli.  The lawsuit was filed on January 8th by Marler Clark, one of the nation’s leading law firms for cases relating to food borne illnesses.

Throughout the “pink slime” controversy this past spring, Beef Products Inc., the company which manufactures LFTB, vigorously defended the safety of its product.  According to the company, its ammonium hydroxide processing method is sufficient to kill potentially deadly bacteria in the raw material it receives from beef processors, raw material which is more likely than other parts of the cow to have come into contact with feces during the butchering process.

However, according to a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2009 New York Times exposé, federal testing between 2005-2009 found that ground beef containing LFTB was four times more likely to contain salmonella than regular ground meat.  The facts of this case also took place during this time period, with the plaintiff’s consumption of the allegedly tainted beef taking place at the end of 2009, and his death occurring in early January, 2010.

The lawsuit alleges that tainted beef trim from JBS Swift & Company was sent to BPI for processing but the resulting LFTB still contained E coli when mixed by Tyson Foods, Inc. into ground beef  consumed by the plaintiff.  According to Marler Clark, this chain of distribution was determined through an investigation by the Minnesota Department of Health, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service; a chart prepared by Marler Clark illustrating the chain of distribution may be found here and is more fully described here.

The Minnesota Department of Health seems to feel there is a definitive link between BPI’s product and the plaintiff’s death, with a department representative quoted in the Daily News story as saying:

Is it likely that their product has ever made people sick, absolutely. . .  Is it likely that BPI’s product was a source of this illness, absolutely.

It’s important to note that in more recent years BPI has reportedly improved its pathogen testing protocols, a development which I and others have lauded.   However, based on my reading of the complaint and the Daily News story, it is unclear to me whether BPIs testing methods for the particular strain of E coli which allegedly killed the plaintiff in this case have changed since the new protocols were instituted.

The full New York Daily News story, written by David Knowles, may be found here.

 

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Ex-BPI Employee Sues Me, Jamie Oliver and ABC News Over LFTB Controversy

Yesterday I learned that Bruce Smith, a former environmental health and safety officer at Beef Products Inc., has filed a pro se lawsuit in Nebraska state court relating to last spring’s controversy over BPI’s lean, finely textured beef product.  I’m one of the named defendants, along with ABC News, Jim Avila, Diane Sawyer and Jamie Oliver.  I have not been served with the suit.

In his complaint, Mr. Smith claims to have suffered the negligent infliction of emotional distress due to the loss of his job at BPI last May.  Mr. Smith has also self-published a book entitled Pink Slime Ate My Job, the sale of which he appears to be promoting in connection with his lawsuit.

For the time being, I’ll have no further comment except to say that I’m confident the First Amendment protects the rights of all Americans, including bloggers like myself, against meritless attempts at censorship like this one.  I will vigorously defend my right, and the rights of all of us, to speak out on matters of public importance and to petition the federal government, as I did through Change.org, to change any policy with which we disagree.

My sincere thanks to all of you who’ve already expressed support and/or extended offers of assistance as I prepare to defend myself against this lawsuit.  I’ll keep you posted regarding further developments as warranted.

Before signing off, a reminder that the stringent comments policy I published last spring remains in effect.  Anyone who feels the need to include personal attacks, profanity or anti-semitic sentiments in their responses to this or any other post will not see their comment appear in this forum.  Moreover, all future comments from any sender violating this policy will go directly to my spam filter and I will not see them for moderation.

[Ed. Update: As of 12/19/12, this blog’s comments policy has been updated to indicate that I will summarily block any “commenters using aliases and multiple email addresses to appear to be more than one reader. I will use my reasonable judgment, based on IP addresses and other information, to determine if a commenter is engaging in this practice.”]

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I’ve Been Nominated as a “Mom on a Mission!”

As a result of my recent efforts to end the use of LFTB in USDA-procured beef for the National School Lunch Program, I’ve been chosen as one of eight finalists for Healthy Child Healthy World’s 2012 Mom on a Mission campaign.

I’m truly honored by this nomination, but when you see the other seven finalists and their accomplishments, you’ll understand why I don’t feel I deserve to be in their company.  The strides we made this spring toward improved food transparency and consumer choice were only possible because we all voiced our opinion together.  It was truly a collective victory and I share this nomination with everyone who signed my Change.org petition.

Here’s a video statement I was asked to submit for the campaign:

Please vote!

Voting begins tomorrow, Saturday, September 1st and will end on Monday, October 15th.  When the link goes live tomorrow, you can vote here.   (I’ll also share the link on Facebook and Twitter now and then during the voting period.)  The winner will be honored at a special fundraising event in New York City this fall.

Thank you to Healthy Child, Healthy World!

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School Districts Just Say No to LFTB

For much of March and April, The Lunch Tray was dominated by the issue of “lean finely textured beef,” i.e., a beef filler made from heated and ammoniated slaughterhouse scraps and popularly referred to as “pink slime.”

As you know, on March 6th I launched a Change.org petition here on the blog which asked USDA to cease the inclusion of this product in beef procured by the agency for use in the National School Lunch program.  The petition went on to garner over a quarter of a million signatures in a matter of days.  On the ninth day of the petition USDA changed its policy, for the first time giving school districts the choice of purchasing either pre-formed beef patties containing LFTB or bulk beef without the filler.

Though this result was a clear victory for those supporting the petition, I questioned at the time whether the latter choice would be an affordable option for schools, given the extra labor needed to use the bulk beef.  Today, however, the Associated Press reports that the vast majority of districts in America are taking advantage of the non-LFTB option:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the vast majority of states participating in its National School Lunch Program have opted to order ground beef that doesn’t contain the product known as lean finely textured beef.

Only three states – Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota – chose to order beef that may contain the filler. . . .

. . . . as of May 18, the agency says states ordered more than 20 million pounds of ground beef products that don’t contain lean finely textured beef. Orders for beef that may contain the filler came to about 1 million pounds.

For those of you who signed on to the petition, I wanted to share this news with you.  It’s yet more indication that your voices on this issue were clearly heard.

 

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4/4: Latest LFTB Link Round-Up

LFTB posts worth reading from the last few days:

  • Iowa governor Terry Branstad, who has called for a Congressional probe of the “smear campaign” against LFTB, sends a letter to fellow governors seeking support and urges Iowa schools to continue to use groundbeef with the filler.
  • But some in Iowa are “queasy” at his attempt to “muzzle” food advocates.
  • Wall Street Journal‘s Market Watch opines: no matter what the beef industry does or says, maybe people just don’t want to eat this stuff.
  • Mark Bittman tries to draw larger implications from the LFTB controversy, as does David Katz, director of the Yale Research Center.
  • And if you haven’t seen it yet, do check out Stephen Colbert’s riff on LFTB —  and its nakedly political defense by the “Beefstate Governors.”

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BREAKING: USDA To Allow Voluntary Labeling of LFTB; Branstad Requests Congressional Hearing

Meatingplace.com, a meat industry online publication, reports today that USDA has received and approved voluntary requests from meat purveyors to disclose on product packaging the inclusion of lean, finely textured beef.  Meatingplace.com is a members-only site but the relevant excerpt of the post reads as follows:

USDA has agreed to approve requests by ground beef product makers to voluntarily label their products that contain lean finely textured beef (LFTB) or similar products that have been the focus of media and social media reporting that has frightened consumers.

“Several companies have chosen to voluntarily pursue a new claim on their product labels that will allow them to clarify the use of Lean Finely Textured Beef.  USDA has received this type of application for the first time through the normal label approval process and the department has determined that such requests will be approved,” USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee told Meatingplace. “By exercising this existing option, these companies can continue to provide a lean, safe and nutritious product to an informed customer base.”

This is a clear victory for consumers who have expressed their concern in recent days that LFTB has been included in reportedly 70% of the nation’s ground beef, up to 15%, without their knowledge.  It follows on the heels of introduction of the REAL Beef Act by Representative Chellie Pingree, as well as letters in support of labeling submitted to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack by Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Sam Farr.

In other news, Iowa governor Terry Branstad has called for a Congressional inquiry into what he refers to as the “smear campaign” against LFTB:

The governor said he suggested an inquiry to U.S. Reps. Steve King and Leonard Boswell and raised the issue with Vilsack, a former Iowa governor. King and Boswell did not immediately return messages left Monday requesting comment.

You’ll recall that Branstad was one of the five governors and lieutenant governors who came to the aid of Beef Products Inc. at a recent press conference, which Marion Nestle described as “breathtakingly high-level—and perhaps unprecedented—support for the public relations troubles of a private food company.”

Stay tuned.

 

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Congresswoman Pingree Introduces the The REAL Beef Act (Requiring Easy and Accurate Labeling)

Bravo to Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine, an early and vocal supporter of my effort to get lean, finely textured beef, commonly referred to as “pink slime” out of school food.  After sending a letter to USDA in support of my petition, Representative Pingree also circulated a sign-on letter in Congress, garnering the support of 41 other representatives.

Congresswoman Chelli Pingree

Today Representative Pingree went a step further and introduced a bill in Congress – the Requiring Easy and Accurate Labeling of Beef Act (REAL Beef Act) — which would require that beef containing LFTB be labeled to disclose that fact to the end purchaser.  The bill was introduced with ten co-sponsors, including Representatives Van Hollen, McCollum, Kucinich, Lee, Holmes-Norton, Holt, Ryan, Schiff, Lewis and Schakowsky.

As I have written here in the past, Beef Products Inc. has every right to sell its LFTB so long as it does so in a safe manner.  But  our free market economy rests on informed consumer choice, choice which was denied us when USDA decided that LFTB — up to 15% of the total product — need not be labeled on ground beef packages.

If BPI is so confident in the safety and quality of its product, it should have absolutely no objection to completely transparent labeling.  Any lobbying efforts by BPI (or the beef industry) against its passage are a tacit admission that this product simply can’t withstand the bright light of consumer scrutiny.  That should be troubling to us all.

Please urge your own Congressional representatives to support the REAL Beef Act.

 

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Has LFTB Really Been In Our Beef for “Twenty Years” And Without Incident?

Yesterday’s press conference held by Beef Products, Inc., attended by no less than three governors, two lieutenant governors, and the Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was a masterpiece of crisis management.   I’m still working my way through the raw footage – you can view it yourself in real time here.

But even without having seen the entire event, one factoid from the press conference (and disseminated in earlier beef industry communications) is now getting a lot of play in the media:  that lean, finely textured beef, or so-called “pink slime,” has been in our food supply “for twenty years,” with no apparent harm to the consumer.  Here’s just one such use of this fact, in a statement released by South Dakota Governor Dennis Dougard:

Lean finely-textured beef is a 100 percent beef, 95 percent lean, nutritious, safe, quality and affordable beef product eaten by Americans for 20 years.

As I’ve articulated in many posts, but perhaps most succinctly in this one (“My Response to Beef Industry Defenses of ‘Pink Slime'”) there are many reasons to oppose the undisclosed use of this cheap filler in our school food and our food supply without even discussing food safety.  But if food safety is of concern, that fact — twenty years in our beef with no harm done — is pretty compelling.

The only problem is, it’s not true.

Michael Moss, the New York Times reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting about the beef industry and food safety, wrote an extensive article about Beef Products Inc. and LFTB in 2009.   The very first sentence of his article makes clear that the controversial ammonium-hydroxide-based process which creates LFTB been only been in use since 2001:

Eight years ago, federal officials were struggling to remove potentially deadly E. coli from hamburgers when an entrepreneurial company from South Dakota came up with a novel idea: injecting beef with ammonia.

Moss goes on to describe how Eldon Roth, founder of BPI, experimented throughout the 1990s with various methods for treating slaughterhouse scraps before hitting on the combination of heating, centrifuging and treating with ammonium-hydroxide, a process USDA and FDA only approved around 2001:

One of Mr. Roth’s early trials involved running electricity through the trimmings to kill bacteria. . . . Mr. Roth eventually settled on ammonia, which had been shown to suppress spoilage. Meat is sent through pipes where it is exposed to ammonia gas, and then flash frozen and compressed — all steps that help kill pathogens, company research found.

The treated beef landed in Washington in 2001, when federal officials were searching for ways to eliminate E. coli. . . .

Mr. Roth asserted that his product would kill pathogens in untreated meat when it was used as an ingredient in ground beef — raising the prospect of a risk-free burger. “Given the technology, we firmly believe that the two pathogens of major concern in raw ground beef — E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella — are on the verge of elimination,” Mr. Roth wrote to the department.

The Food and Drug Administration signed off on the use of ammonia, concluding it was safe when used as a processing agent in foods.

So, assuming Moss’s article is factually correct (and assuming BPI was not selling this substance without governmental approval), the filler which is the subject of so much controversy has not been in our food supply for “twenty years.”

But what about that claim by BPI and its supporters that the use of this filler has been without incident?

Again, Moss’s article indicates otherwise. In the early years of selling LFTB, BPI encountered complaints from schools and prisons about ammonia in the product:

As suppliers of national restaurant chains and government-financed programs were buying Beef Product meat to use in ground beef, complaints about its pungent odor began to emerge.

In early 2003, officials in Georgia returned nearly 7,000 pounds to Beef Products after cooks who were making meatloaf for state prisoners detected a “very strong odor of ammonia” in 60-pound blocks of the trimmings, state records show.

“It was frozen, but you could still smell ammonia,” said Dr. Charles Tant, a Georgia agriculture department official. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Unaware that the meat was treated with ammonia — since it was not on the label — Georgia officials assumed it was accidentally contaminated and alerted the agriculture department. In their complaint, the officials noted that the level of ammonia in the beef was similar to levels found in contamination incidents involving chicken and milk that had sickened schoolchildren.

As a result, according to Moss, BPI made a decision internally to lower the amount of ammonium hydroxide used in LFTB, despite the fact that USDA had approved its process only when higher levels of the chemical were used:

The Beef Products’ study that won U.S.D.A. approval used an ammonia treatment that raised the pH of the meat to as high as 10, an alkalinity well beyond the range of most foods. The company’s 2003 study cited the “potential issues surrounding the palatability of a pH-9.5 product.”

Soon after getting initial approval from the agriculture department, the company devised a plan to make a less alkaline version of the beef, internal company documents show. Beef Products acknowledged in an e-mail exchange that it was making a lower pH version, but did not specify the level or when it began selling it.

Thereafter, according to Moss, the safety of LFTB was compromised:

. . . government and industry records obtained by The New York Times show that in testing for the school lunch program, E. coli and salmonella pathogens have been found dozens of times in Beef Products meat, challenging claims by the company and the U.S.D.A. about the effectiveness of the treatment. Since 2005, E. coli has been found 3 times and salmonella 48 times, including back-to-back incidents in August in which two 27,000-pound batches were found to be contaminated. The meat was caught before reaching lunch-rooms trays.

In July, school lunch officials temporarily banned their hamburger makers from using meat from a Beef Products facility in Kansas because of salmonella — the third suspension in three years, records show.

What might have happened had that contaminated meat had actually reached our children’s school lunch trays, given that children are far more vulnerable to harm from foodborne illnesses than adults?

The bottom line is that the raw material used to create LFTB is, by its very nature, inherently pathogenic due to its likely contact with cow excrement.  That is precisely why BPI’s innovative ammonium-hydroxide process revolutionized the market — and has reportedly earned the company “hundreds of millions” of dollars.

But that’s also the reason why, when we eat LFTB, we are putting tremendous faith in BPI’s process.   There can be no human or mechanical error, as demonstrated by the fact that in 2009, when two 26,880 pound lots of LFTB tested positive for E. coli and salmonella, respectively, BPI first blamed the incident on a broken nozzle that had failed to spray ammonium hydroxide for a mere sixty seconds:

In addressing the latest contamination cases in Nebraska, Beef Products said it suspected a glitch in its treatment operations, referring to ammonia gas by its chemical name, NH3, according to an e-mail message to school lunch officials.

“The system was stopped for two minutes in order to install a new valve,” the company said. “When the system was restarted, there was product flow for approximately one minute without NH3 flow.”

Similarly, while I have given BPI due credit for leading the industry in testing for the so-called Big Six strains of E. coli, it’s notable that inGermany last summer, 45 people died and almost 4,000 were sickened by a previously unknown strain of E.coli — a strain which by necessity would not be part of BPI’s testing.

So when you hear that LFTB trimmings have been used “for twenty years” without incident, be skeptical.  And keep in mind the words of Eldon Roth himself, quoted in the Moss article:

“Like any responsible member of the meat industry, we are not perfect.”

 

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