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.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,600 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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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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I’m Profiled Today in Beyond Chron!

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 8.59.03 AMAs you may know from the many times I link to her writing on TLT’s Facebook page, Dana Woldow of PEACHSF (Parents, Educators & Advocates Connect ion for Healthy School Food) writes a regular and informative column in Beyond Chron, an online daily in San Francisco, in which she tackles all manner of food-related topics, from school food reform to childhood hunger.

Recently Dana and her husband visited Houston, and I was honored to be interviewed for her column.  Her profile of me appears today.

You can read why I’m referred to as a “reluctant school food advocate,” my thoughts on school food reform in private versus public schools, and what I hope to accomplish here in Houston ISD before the youngest of my two children graduates.

Thanks to Dana for the opportunity!

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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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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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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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My Response to a Facebook Commenter re: LFTB, Job Losses, “Pink Goo” and More

Over the last few weeks, a pro-LFTB commenter named Tiffany has left numerous wall posts on TLT’s Facebook page and when I finally wrote my belated response to her this morning, it seemed worth posting here since many pro-LFTB commenters on this blog have raised similar concerns.  For those who wish to see the exchange referenced below between Tiffany and the other commenter, Tina, you can visit the page and look for Tiffany’s wall post which read:

‎? This started as a way to get LFTB out of school lunches. Then it turned into a full on media smear. Then after you denounced a company and it’s product, after you signed petitions to ban it, your asking for a label. Why is it you felt your opinions where the only ones that mattered?

Here is my response:

Hey Tina and Tiffany:

First of all, it’s been nice to read this exchange and see two people who disagree still manage to keep it together and recognize their common ground — and even be able to joke with each other.  After all the ugliness over on my blog, I find your dialogue hopeful and inspiring.

Tiffany, I don’t know if you ever actually read my blog — sometimes you say things here about me or my views that make me think you don’t bother going to TLT?  (Just FYI, this Facebook page is an informal place for my readers to hang out and where I share little asides, but it’s not the place where I present my views on important issues.)  So it’s hard — and even a bit unfair to ask me — to recap in these little blue boxes full responses to your concerns given that I’ve already written about them at length on TLT.  But let me just say a few things here.

I am deeply troubled by job losses and plant closings.  I think it’s safe to say that almost everyone who reads TLT is a parent, and we all know the pressure and anxiety of having young children dependent on us for all their needs.  To put any parent through the stress of job loss, especially in this economy, is a terrible thing.

What I find even more troubling is that the people who might lose their jobs over this controversy are likely very far removed from the decision makers who helped influence USDA’s determination that this product not be labeled on ground beef.  Had consumers known about this filler from day one, and had BPI been making all the positive claims about it that we’re now hearing from the company, I suspect we would never have seen anything like the consumer outcry of the last few weeks, the same outcry that led stores to cancel orders, etc.  People felt — rightly, to my mind — deceived about what they were buying when they picked up a package of ground beef in the supermarket and the backlash has been intense.

It is true that my petition focused only on school food.  You’re new here and, as Tina said, I write only about kids and food on TLT, five days a week.  I’m also actively involved in school food in Houston ISD.  So I care very much about what we feed school kids and yes — while I know you and I will never, ever agree on this subject — I was quite displeased to learn on March 5th that LFTB is still in the meat procured by USDA for the National School Lunch Program.  (I had thought Agriculture Secretary Vilsack had made a decision in 2010 to no longer use beef with LFTB in school food; I was obviously mistaken.)

I started a petition on March 6th which contained only factual, sourced information.  I did not make any big deal about “ammonia” – I mentioned the use of ammonium hydroxide exactly once in the petition and that’s it – no scary references to Windex, etc.  And yes, while on the first day I accidentally included that incorrect photo of “pink goo,” I corrected my error on the petition and on TLT the very next day.  (My best guess is that perhaps 2,000 people of the quarter of a million who ultimately signed the petition saw the original version with the goo photo.)

As media coverage of the issue spread and consumers expressed their dismay over learning that LFTB was in their reportedly 70% of ground beef sold in the U.S., up to 15% and without disclosure, a call for labeling began.  While that was not the goal of my petition, I wholeheartedly support labeling and lent my voice to that effort.  (And those two goals are not unrelated.  Schoolchildren who participate in the NSLP are by and large economically dependent on the school meal, yet they and their parents had no voice over — or knowledge of — what was in the ground beef being served.)  I am proud of the fact that I worked with Congresswoman Pingree’s office to help introduce the REAL Beef Act in Congress and I hope that it succeeds in getting passed.  Even if it does not, however, we saw yesterday that USDA will allow processors to voluntarily label LFTB and many are taking advantage of this choice.

I have never once asked for this product to be banned from the marketplace.  However, our free market economy cannot function without informed consumer choice.  BPI clearly has a big megaphone — no less than five states sent governors or lieutenant governors to participate in its widely covered press conference last week — and it is well equipped to make its case that LFTB is a safe and wholesome product.  Some consumers will agree and buy beef with LFTB, and others will not.  That seems to me to be the right of every American consumer and, frankly, I wonder why many who believe LFTB is such a great product seem afraid to let consumers know it’s in their ground beef.  (And before you tell me “beef is beef,” such that LFTB needs no label, I promise you that I am very well acquainted with that view point, and I just don’t agree.  You can read why here, among other places.)

Finally, thank you for the many comments you’ve left on this page expressing your views.  You recently used some harsh expletives to address a commenter on this page and while I don’t condone that,  I also saw that you were provoked by her.  I trust you won’t do that again, and you should know I’ve spoken to the person on the other side as well.  And I’m sorry it’s taken me days to address you directly here – it has been challenging to keep up with the hundreds of comments coming in on this page and on the blog itself, as well as all the emails I receive.

As I said above, I know you and I will never see eye-to-eye on this issue, but I hope this clears up at least a few of the misconceptions you seem to have had about me and my petition.  And, again, I do hope you will visit The Lunch Tray, if you haven’t already done so, to actually read my views presented in a fuller and more nuanced way.

A Message – and a Warning — to Commenters

Despite the fact that this is a personal blog and I have absolutely no obligation to provide readers with a forum for free expression, my approach from Day One has been to welcome dissent here so long as it is civilly expressed.  And in almost two years of blogging I have had to censor, at most, two or three comments which violated that policy.

But in the last few days, as the beef industry’s PR counteroffensive regarding LFTB has heated up, comments here on The Lunch Tray have also gotten more heated, regularly crossing that line between the passionate defense of ideas to ugly, ad hominem attacks against me and/or other commenters.  Nevertheless, despite the fact that I have every right to delete such comments, I’ve relaxed my standards and allowed a lot of them in.

But no longer.

The Lunch Tray is, in effect, my home, my own little corner of the Internet created from nothing, and in which I have invested almost two years of unpaid labor.  Its hallmark from the beginning has been that it is a safe and respectful place in which to air all sorts of views related to the “kids and food” issues I write about.  I intend to keep it so.

From here on out, I am tightening up my moderation policy.  Accordingly, here are some tips for those who wish to comment on the LFTB issue and actually see their comments appear:

1.  Before leaving a comment, please read the entire comment thread on the post.  If the sentiment you are expressing is virtually identical to that expressed by a previous commenter, especially if it’s no more than “beef is beef,” or urging me to look at the industry website, beefisbeef.com, I will not be inclined to post it.

2.  In case you don’t understand what I mean by a “civil tone,” it is exactly the tone I am employing right now in addressing you.  Polite, respectful — and in no way personal.

3.  Comments which mix valid points with ad hominem attacks or other nastiness will be lost to my trash folder, and that’s a shame, because I welcome any information which adds depth to this discussion. By way of example, if you’re knowledgable about chemistry and write a long, technical disquisition about the role of ammonia in beef processing — but then you feel the need to sign off by calling another commenter an obnoxious name — sadly, I will have to delete the entire comment.

4.  Unlike attacks on my readers, attacks on me personally might make it through if they raise even remotely valid concerns about my potential biases related to LFTB.  But attacks which are outside that narrow parameter will also be deleted.

But before moving on from that point, for the many inquiring minds who’ve written and speculated about me in recent days, here are some answers to your questions:

  • I have never hired professional models to pose as my kids, but they’ll be flattered to know you thought so.
  • Your interest in my sex life might just raise more questions about you than me.
  • Though I’ve probably written over a million words on TLT to date, I make no profit from blogging.  My expenses – the purchase of stock photos, giveaway items and the rest — vastly exceed the $100 I made from Google ads last year.
  • Sadly, I have no special red phone that connects me with my former Harvard Law School classmate, President Barack Obama.  If I did,  though, we might have an interesting conversation about labeling LFTB.
If you object to my “censorship” in accordance with the aforementioned guidelines, so be it.  There are many other forums out there in which you can express your views in any manner you wish.
– Bettina
[Ed Update:  To make sure everyone plays by these rules, I’ve set the blog to hold all comments until I can approve them, even if you are a trusted and longtime reader.  This means there will be longer delays before even unoffending comments are posted.  I’m sorry about that – maybe after a few days, we can go back to the old system where those with a good track record will see their comments appear automatically.]

 

 

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“Beef Is Beef?” Why Experts Disagree With That Claim for LFTB

Readers who’ve long been following the beef industry’s response to the controversy surrounding lean finely textured beef (LFTB, commonly known as “pink slime”) will remember the first website and Twitter hash tag marshaled in defense of the product: “pinkslimeisamyth.”

But within a few days someone on the BPI crisis response team apparently decided to ditch that rather clumsy name in favor of “beefisbeef” — a catchphrase now repeated over and over (and over) again by LFTB supporters on this blog and elsewhere.

The gist of the slogan is that LFTB is 100% identical to what most consumers think of when they hear “ground beef,” i.e., a piece of whole muscle meat ground up.  “Beef is beef,” say LFTB supporters, so stop demanding labeling for LFTB.  Comments worded almost exactly like this one appear frequently on my blog:

Here is the LABEL

Ingredients: BEEF, plus more LEAN BEEF.

That was easy.

But as Helena Bottemiller writes today in a Food Safety News report, apparently there are qualitative, material differences between LFTB and ground beef.  Specifically, according to the scientists quoted in Bottemiller’s report — including the only scientist invited to BPI’s governor-heavy press conference last week — LFTB differs from ground beef in several important respects, including the presence of ammonia in the finished product and differences in texture and protein composition.  After a summary of the evidence, Bottemiller asks:

So if LFTB contains added ammonia, is 100 times more alkaline, and has both a different texture and sometimes smell, why isn’t it labeled as a component when it’s thawed and mixed in ground beef?

A very good question.

And here’s a question of my own.  Even if we buy into the “beef is beef” claim, no one can deny that the presence of LFTB in a burger affects the final taste and texture, one way or the other.

BPI claims on its website that the effect is positive:

In study after study, taste panel after taste panel, consumers have consistently shown a preference for ground meat and other products made from BPI ingredients.  A taste panel conducted on our behalf by South Dakota State University confirms why our lean beef is a preferred ground beef ingredient.

Interestingly enough, if you dig into the actual study commissioned by BPI to support its “LFTB burgers are preferred” claim, you’ll see that the higher the LFTB ratio in the burger, the higher it was rated by taste test panelists on the “tenderness” variable, a finding which fully comports with Helena Bottelmiller’s reporting today that:

. . . according to a 1995 study on LFTB by Ying He and Joseph Sebranek of Iowa State University, LFTB contains more serum and connective tissue proteins and less myofibrillar proteins than muscle meat, giving it a softer texture.

Meanwhile, in his own admittedly informal taste test, Associated Press food editor JM Hirsch gave his LFTB-containing burger at thumbs down:

And then there was the texture. Unpleasantly chewy bits of what I can only describe as gristle, though they were not visible, seemed to stud the meat of the pink slime burger. The result was a mealy chew that, while not overtly unpleasant, didn’t leave me wanting another bite.

But the point is this:  LFTB might well be valued by some consumers precisely because it results in a softer burger, and other consumers may want to avoid LFTB for that same reason (or for a whole host of other reasons — lingering ammonia being just one of them).  So how do we accommodate both sets of consumers?

Dude, just label it.

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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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