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Letter From The Editor: Internet Petitions

Food safety is ultimately based on reasonable decisions that flow from science.

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It’s probably not going to go well if we turn to electronic mob rule where only one side of a debate is passionately delivered to mostly like-minded adherents.

But that’s what we are doing in this new world of the Internet petition campaigns.

We all have the right to petition the government. There was a day when that meant taking a petition around from door-to-door where anyone being asked to sign felt very free to bring up counter arguments or grab their shotgun if the petition promoters overstayed their welcome.

A bunch of petition sites exist today, promising that you can change the world without leaving home and with only a few clicks. Change.org, SignOn.com, and iPetitions.com are among the examples.

Even the White House web site has “We the People” as its official petition site.  And there are others.

These systems often automatically send emails to the targets of the petition using the names of the signers. Since all politics is local, that usually results in overkill that makes these systems not as effective on the smaller stuff. (If you are a local council member you could care less what someone from the other side of the world thinks.)

Also, all of these petition systems can be gamed by those with either a lot of time or the skills to hack the Pentagon and Scotland Yard. So always take reports of how many signed with a grain of salt.

That said, let’s admit food safety is not thriving in this new environment. Whether it’s Michael Taylor’s future in running the food side of the Food and Drug Administration or how finely textured lean beef should be sold, food safety is not doing well on these petition sites.

They are not about facts and science; they are emotion and mob rule. In such a world, all food safety can do is get down on its knees and crawl for the door.

In a country of almost 312 million, Taylor should not have to worry about whether 430,000 people want him fired, or should USDA care a wit about 250,000 people think finely textured beef sounds icky and therefore should be off the school lunch menu. The 0.14 or 0.07 percent shouldn’t rule.

But also in a country where we’ve seen presidential elections decided by a handful of votes, no politician or hack can stand being around any list of voters without genuflecting in their direction.

Retail operations, from commercial banks to retail grocers, have proven to be especially susceptible to this sort of pressure. Watching nearly all major retail grocery chains drop the use of finely textured lean in their ground beef really was not too surprising.

They were stampeded, even through it is possible some of them will replace the ammonia-treated safe meat with something entirely more risky.   

At the moment, retailers seem to be equating petition signers with their consumers and reacting accordingly, which is what the free market is all about.  As my colleague Helen Bottemiller says: “consumers can be picky.”

But I think retailers and others would be wise to look at little closer at these petition mills and instead rely on consumer contacts that are, for certain, real. My guess is that Walmart was once again the one that made the right choice by going with choice and disclosure, not just dropping a safe product.

Perhaps each of these petition sites should be required to post a notice saying something like this: “While our service may give the impression that this is a direct democracy, it’s not.  We have a Republic form of government based on some democratic principles.   This requires you to put on your pants occasionally to go out to vote or attend a public hearing.”


I left out the part about it being a real good idea to meet someone who knows more than you do, and disagrees with you.

© Food Safety News
  • Dan, thank you so much for this post.
    “[Petitions] are not about facts and science; they are emotion and mob rule. In such a world, all food safety can do is get down on its knees and crawl for the door.”
    I will never understand how people think it makes sense for policy to be made on public opinion. In a public sphere where fearmongering and spreading of falsehoods is the norm (from all sides, it often seems), basing policy on public opinion is downright dangerous. Ideally, both policy and public opinion would be informed by science, but sadly I don’t know if that will ever be the case.

  • pawpaw

    Dan,
    As a science educator and a small-scale, direct-market farmer, beef included, I view this multifaceted story with interest. My market customers look me in the eye and want to know the details of how their food has been grown and processed. And my students read an assigned piece on the importance of the narrative, in how science-based processes are explained to and perceived by the general public.
    Regardless of the reasons, BPI apparently chose to include but not disclose “finely textured lean beef” in their ground beef product, and a federal agency chose to approve this. Were there voices at BPI who had reservations? Science and food safety may be on their side, but companies that disregard the “ick factor” in undisclosed additives or processes are taking a public relations risk.
    You wrote that “0.14 or 0.07 percent shouldn’t rule”. Major grocers likely suspect that petition signers are but a tip of the iceberg of public unease about our food supply, and hence may be acting to value customer trust and grocer reputation for hearing customer concern.
    FSN recently noted 55 US congress members who have asked that GMO foods be labeled, including the argument that over 50 countries already do so. Another instance where US companies have calculated the science is settled, so the public need not know?

  • Very Refreshing and True. Thank you!
    Everyone is biased but a few get past their own egos and ignorance to find an approximate truth. There is so much at stake for the people involved on all sides of an issue. Twitter and Media and sound bites have gotten so out of hand and focused on small group biases. While attention to bad management and corruption is important for change, without being involved in a situation and knowing motives on all sides – huge damage is done to an industry.
    I am thankful that some changes are being made in food safety, workforce safety but there is so much damage being done in the process by people who are very ignorant (need to learn more about a subject) and folks who want attention or money or sway folks to their belief system (egos).
    Thank you again Dan for your article! So how do we change this trend? Sandy

  • Very nice column, Dan. I think the one element you’re missing, and I might actually go after this in another short column in our publication, is that these petitions — regardless of the percentage of population they represent — are helping to drive media attention. And this media attention is leading to a change in consumer behavior.
    The noise about “pink slime” has been around for a decade and got a little louder back in 2008/2009, but it wasn’t until recently that the big fast-food chains and grocery stores responded by making dramatic ingredient/supplier decisions. What changed between then and now? It’s not like the Internet was just invented. These companies must have experienced or feared experiencing a loss in sales. Science-based or not, these movements are succeeding.
    Given FSN’s ability to be read by the masses, you guys are in a powerful place to influence this phenomenon and act as the voice of balance and reason in such instances.

  • Here is the problem with these “petitions”. Yes, they DO influence opinion, but the majority of the “voters” who sign them do not really know what they are signing and the consequences of signing either. In the case of BPI and LFTB, those consequences are far reaching and terrible. What happened to fact checking? What happened to reporting in this country? It’s been hijacked by “entertainment journalism” and that includes our major news broadcasters.
    The “controversy” over what some very evil folks labeled “pink slime” is not a controversy at all. It’s not an additive. It’s just plain ground beef, treated with a puff of ammonium hydroxide GAS (that dissipates), leaving a 100% beef product that is SAFER to consume than if it had not been processed in this way. Check your facts. But facts have NOTHING to do with what has happened to BPI. Thousands of people will be out of work, and for nothing. Whole communities are about to suffer economic despair because the Mom and Pop shops that support the workers of these plants in small towns will now also suffer the consequences. All in the name of some over-eager “investigative journalist”, who apparently didn’t investigate really at all. If Jim Avila of ABC had actually been in the BPI plant and seen what goes on and how it all works then there would not have been a story at all. And all these fine people would have jobs, and we as consumers would know that our ground beef is safer. And by the way, this isn’t the only product that makes use of ammonium hydroxide, a natural substance already found in our bodies. Hundreds of products use it in processing – cheese, chocolate, soda pop, baked goods, etc.
    What has happened isn’t just public outcry. The public didn’t know what they were signing because they were duped by media-with-an-agenda. The grocery stores, instead of defending BPI and this product, and educating their customers had a knee jerk reaction and just caved in to this tiny percentage of consumers. I’m shopping at WalMart now – at least they checked the facts. What has happened is criminal intent to destroy a company. Now THAT should be a news item.
    EVERYONE should do their part to turn this around. Food safety has suffered a huge setback with what has happened. Read “In Defense of Food Safety Leadership”, also on Food Safety News.com

  • Steve

    Mob rule — really??
    A bona-fide participatory democracy is based on government that operates from the power of we the people — not the entrenched oligopoly power of corporate “personhood” whose hegemony and domination of acceptable “science” has become the chief determiner of gov’t policy and oversight.
    One result is the long lists of toxic chemicals allowed in food production and household goods that are loose, unlabeled, in the marketplace.
    In today’s scenario our role is to act as good little brand-identified consumers — even though many of those supermarket brands can be traced back to a handful of mega food corporations…
    Once consumers realize we have some real power via our collective purchasing power, however, increased transparency, true labeling and viable alternatives can appear in the corporate-dominated marketplace.
    Knowledge is power. The pink slime process was invented to make the sale of low grade meat trimmings profitable without killing off consumers — but it’s being marketed as an exemplar of “food safety”.
    Try as they might, corporations can’t get by “the customer is always right”, even though the participatory aspects are a little messy at times. Fact is, citizens have very little power to influence our governments policy and oversight (and the “science” that supports it) — but pressuring McDonalds, et al can change things for the better overnight…

  • The traditional media sources are underfunded and sometimes reporters lack the skills needed to tackle some of the more complex stories, as this one is. And, yes, sometimes members of the general media can be lazy.
    But it’s more than that. Most journalists go to school to learn their craft and spend years refining it. We’re driven by a desire to present an accurate and balanced picture. However, much of the general public doesn’t take the time to differentiate between journalism and the blogs written by those individuals who have an agenda, are simply less informed or some who are quick to pull the trigger without knowing all of the facts.
    Dan is right. Whether lean finely textured beef (pink slime) is OK to put in hamburgers or not shouldn’t be decided by an electronic mob but by reasoned, well-informed individuals. For God’s sake, if it’s bad for us, consumers should resist buying it. But people who whip up a frenzy by focusing on only the sensational aspects of the product without understanding the science aren’t doing consumers any justice.
    Stepping down from my soapbox now. Eager to see other comments.

  • As the originator of the petition in question, I feel it’s incumbent upon me to write a lengthy reply to this post. And yet, I hardly think I could articulate my view better than commenter Steve above. So, ditto.

  • Ted

    Thank you, Dan, for stepping back, taking a deep breath and exercising reason & good judgement in this situation. Your journalistic integrity is redeemed with this one. Keep it factual, man! Know the thoughtful majority is with you even as the vocal emotional minority pressures you to trash good science and blindly leap on the sensational bandwagon.

  • Anthony Boutard

    Dan,
    You are missing a critical part of the story. Over the last four decades, the meat industry has gone through a massive consolidation. In the 1960s and 70s, you could see the sides of beef and pork through a window in the supermarket’s cooler. Butchers in the supermarkets broke down the carcasses and ground the meat on site. Today, most chains buy their meat already cut up and ground. We have just a handful meat companies left in the US, six if I recall correctly.
    In the face of this massive consolidation, consumers have no choice but to consolidate their voices. They want and need honest brokers in the FDA and USDA. It is hard to trust the governance of the agencies when there is a revolving door between the regulators and the industry. This is a legitimate concern.
    It also breaks the bonds of trust when the regulators and industry allow adulteration of a clearly identified product. In the minds of consumers “ground beef” has a clear standard of identity, ground muscle meat with a specified proportion of fat, and it does not include “lean finely textured beef” sanitized with ammonium hydroxide. We were not given a choice. If lean finely textured beef is legitimate product, price it and sell it as such. Let consumers decide whether they want to add it to their ground beef.
    There is no mob action in these petitions, it is just a highly effective form of communication. With a consolidated food industry, consumers have no choice but to work together, consolidate, so as to advance their legitimate interests. If I believe something is wrong, I will eagerly join with 400,000 other people to give my voice strength. The industry spends billions on lobbyists and advertising to put forward its point of view, so it is hard to understand why anyone should get so agitated by simple, grassroots communication.
    Anthony Boutard
    Ayers Creek Farm

  • Ruby

    A little more unhinged spin from Steve, Bettina and Anthony but we are not fooled — this electronic robo-petition was not equivalent to “consumer preference”, not even close. No one was “voting with their dollars” as we so often hear threatened and now claimed. Dan is spot-on when he points out industry was stampeded by mob-rule. And a pretty small mob, truth be told. There are a couple hundred million consumers in the US. A handful of Chigaco-style “voters” (vote early and vote often, dead folks need representation, too), a couple of paid small farm industry shills and one pushy helicopter parent don’t speak for the sane majority of us. No way.

  • In complete agreement with Anthony and Steve. It’s unfortunate that such thoughtful commentary is then sneeringly dismissed by “Ruby”.
    When did people banding together to bring about effective change become “mob rule”? According to you, Dan, it’s when consumers decided we don’t have to passively accept what corporations demand we buy, and consume.
    This publication is about food safety. Well, then, it’s time for you to take a trip back through history, because most innovations in support of safer food have come about because of public outcry.

  • I agree with you Dan. The majority of these petitions get signed based on emotions not fact. The pink slime is a great example. Science and experts agree there is no food safety issue here. Yet, the petitioners have made it out to be a food safety issue. Is it an issue of “I should know what is in my food” ok sure, I can buy that.
    I’ve been in Food Safety since I graduated College and I needed to look at all the facts and data before I could make a determination on the subject. Your “pink slime” is safer than your ground beef. A nice write up I found is here. http://badbatz.tumblr.com/post/19794084487/gross-but-safe-and-maybe-not-meat
    I think it’s great that people are involved and care about the quality and safety of their food. I understand how frustrating it can be working with the Federal Government, but have you ever tried talking to your local board of health to get a resolution passed or change a local ordinance. Supporting your local health department, helping them set the health goals of your community will “trickle” up. How do you think calorie counts got on menus? Smoking bans started? I’m not saying stop petitions, they have their place of course, they need to be signed for the right reason. I’m also saying don’t cut out your local community they can be an important stepping stone.

  • Michael Vaughn

    Dan, you’re right – food safety should be “based on reasonable decisions that flow from science.”
    However, this issue is not only about science and food safety: It is about the fact that large corporations, such as BPI, have the power to influence regulators and politicians into allowing these processes to happen without disclosure to the public. Those of who disagree with this pact feel they have few choices – other than acceptance. As pointed out in other comments, people feel that these online petitions level the playing field when up against large conglomerates and passive politicians; I agree with this view.
    Further, I believe the real issues here are not whether we should allow this byproduct into our food supply, because it is made inherently safe by processing, but, rather, how can we make our animal products safer so they do not need this process in the first place. This is the ONLY question that needs asking.
    Should we support a food industry that NEEDS to process their product just to make it safe for consumption? Should consumers just go along with whatever these corporations say is good for us, while they ignore the fact their product is unsafe until this process is complete? We need to ask how beef has become so toxic that only ammonia and other processes will make it safe.

  • Brownie

    Pink Slime is not a fabrication, it is the lowest grade meat trimmings the industry can produce. Ammonia Hydroxide is not a food substance.
    When the meat industry and Federal food Inspection (FSIS) got in bed together was a dark day for consumers.
    Consumers RISE UP. Remember Teddy Roosevelts reaction in 1906
    when he learned of how the meat industry was producing meat for
    human consumption.