Pink slime push-back: Someone smarter, or more emotional, than me has to figure this out


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.

Video: Jamie Oliver Mischaracterizes Lean Beef

By Susan Crowell

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  1. Well said. This “fight” was all about the emotion and the perception, not the scientific facts. As you said, we (agricultural people in general) are great at spouting facts but not so good at sharing our emotions. And that’s where we miss the boat.

  2. As an Animal Science major who has worked in the agriculture industry this sensationalism is an outcry to the worst of public hysteria. LBT should be touted as a way the food industry is becoming more efficient and “green”, if we want to use their words.

    You’re right Marybeth, we don’t do enough to promote the agriculture industry from an emotional, feeling basis.

  3. Well said, Susan. The Ag industry will now be playing catch up to renew consumer trust even though the product is 100% beef. I assume the nation’s dogs will soon be eating better.

  4. With regard to Aristotle, if the Food Industry had a reliable “ethos,” “pathos” would not be a problem. And, for “logos,” it’s called truth in labeling, which Cargill got right. Cargill understands it’s best to be upfront about “episteme,” real knowledge-science. That way we can have an honest rhetoric. For Aristotle rhetoric and its consequences is engaging in ethics, that’s how we as a people or industry come to have an “ethos” or lack thereof. And, per Gadamer, rhetoric for Aristotle is not sophistry, it is the practice of developing ethics. To get a sense of the difference take look at an article on one of these pages: Nine million pounds of beef recalled because it “carried out these activities without benefit or full benefit of federal inspection.” How do spot the bad beef, look at the number next to “USDA mark of inspection.” One of my great pleasures in life is eating a good hamburger with all the trimmings. I worked in butcher shops as a kid and young man; the “beef trimmings” went in the bone (soap, cosmetics) barrell. Jamie is a chef. Think about what he wants to present to his customers. That’s why he did it. Think about what you want to present to your customers, think about it ethically. Just be square about it. Respectfully, M.P.


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