Two weeks ago, I was going to write my column about lean, finely textured beef, smeared on the Internet and most media as “pink slime.” But, I didn’t, and last week I thought the brouhaha had played itself out and I would be late to the party.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. Monday (March 26) Beef Products Inc., headquartered in South Dakota, announced it was suspending production at three of its four plants because of the furor over their product. Six hundred people at their plants in Amarillo, Texas; Garden City, Kan.; and Waterloo, Iowa, are laid off, some perhaps permanently if the market doesn’t rebound. Company founder Eldon Roth said ultimately 3,000 jobs (direct employment and companies that rely on his business) will be affected.
According to the Associated Press, the plant in Amarillo produced 200,000 pounds a day, and the Kansas and Iowa plants each produced 350,000 pounds a day.
Part of the clamor started when British-born chef and author Jamie Oliver filmed a clip on processing scrap beef. Among the other things on the clip, he grabs a jug of ammonia from the cupboard and pours it over the ground beef trimmings, and continues to mix it in with more beef as filler. Pink slime.
Two strikes: A toxic household cleaner and scraps used as filler in ground beef.
There’s more, but that triggered an ABC News segment, and the recent maelstrom that swept through the Internet and media. Bloggers blogged, confused consumers questioned and everyone reacted. (Scroll to the bottom to watch a video created by Beef Products Inc., that includes responses from the company as well as university meat scientists.)
Kroger has said it will no longer purchase ground beef containing lean finely textured beef. So have Stop & Shop, Giant Eagle, Hy-Vee and even Aldi. Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Burger King have said “no.” And schools can now choose whether or not to buy beef with the filler.
There’s so much more I could write about the food safety implications (it’s safe), the misconceptions about ammonia hydroxide, and the impact to the U.S. beef industry (one source claims it will take up to 1.5 million more head of cattle to replace the lean finely textured beef product). But perhaps what concerns me most is the “ick factor” that has been the basis for most of the consumers’ and retailers’ reactions.
If it was called something else, would consumers have been more accepting of it?
No one wants to think about pink slime in their burgers. Our emotions trump science and reason every time. We’ve seen it before in agriculture, and we’ll see it again. That’s because food is sacred, and we’ve come to expect only purity on our plates.
Let’s face it, we have a lot of “ick” in the livestock business, from calf scours and artificial insemination, to animal mortality and meat processing. Farming is not always clean and pretty and pristine; food production often looks unappetizing. And pink slime definitely sounds gross.
How do we get better at creating the emotion, rather than reacting to it all the time? How do we enter the conversations without being dismissed as Big Ag?
Maybe we need to listen more and talk less. If we want consumer to understand us, we need to understand where they’re coming from, and we can’t do that if we’re talking at them instead of with them.
Maybe we need to bring in more outsiders (did I really just write that?). Along every step of the way, we need to ask them, “what would a customer think about this?” We might have seen the pink slime push-back coming.
Maybe we need to read our Greek philosophy. Aristotle divided the means of persuasion into three categories: ethos (the source’s credibility), logos (the logic or facts used to support a claim), and pathos (the emotional appeal or sensory details).
We’re pretty good at logos rhetoric, and we’re also pretty trustworthy (ethos). But we’ve failed to share our experience (pathos), our values and our beliefs.
People care. We should, too.
By Susan Crowell