Last week, Iowa’s Gov. Terry Branstad and U.S. Rep. Steve King called for a congressional hearing on the media coverage that fueled a public backlash against ‘pink slime,’ Beef Products Inc.’ s Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB). Among other things, King accused journalists and activists of perpetrating a “smear campaign” against BPI and suggested they should go under oath to explain why they “could not base their allegations on facts.”
Coming from top-tier lawmakers, the demands for a hearing were a testament to the significant influence of media and social networking on the national perception of LFTB. Since the backlash ignited last month, concerned parents and grossed-out burger lovers have spoken out in droves, demanding it be labeled or altogether removed from store shelves and school lunches.
But LFTB isn’t new. It’s been marketed since 2001, when the Food and Drug Administration OK’d the ammonia treatment process, and it had been in McDonald’s hamburgers and on school lunch trays since at least 2004. The Washington Post wrote about it in 2008, the documentary Food, Inc. showed BPI’s process on camera, and a 2009 story discussing BPI’s product earned journalist Michael Moss and the New York Times a Pulitzer Prize. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver railed against it on primetime television in 2011.
So, after roughly four years in the popular media, what sparked the sudden, forceful public rejection of LFTB?
The group of governors and lieutenant governors, led by Branstad, who held a press conference on March 29 largely blamed “misinformation” in the media. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback called it “an unmerited and unwarranted food scare.”
The journalists who spearheaded last month’s LFTB coverage, however, say they’d be more than happy to speak in front of a congressional panel. They have nothing to hide, they say, because their reporting stuck to the facts, and the facts themselves turned people away from BPI’s signature fare.
“Branstad is a governor. He can ask for a congressional hearing if he wants, but we have nothing to hide. There’s no conspiracy,” ABC News senior correspondent Jim Avila told Food Safety News. “It’s not misinformation. We’ve never said ‘pink slime’ is unsafe.”
Avila introduced the LFTB story to television audiences during the March 7 broadcast of ABC World News with Diane Sawyer. He said he first caught on to the story the same time most others did, by reading journalist David Knowles’ article published two days earlier in the iPad newspaper The Daily.
Titled “Partners in ‘Slime,’ ” Knowles’ article was the first to point out a juxtaposition that many readers found disturbing: While notoriously cheap fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell were ditching LFTB, the USDA was gearing up to order 7 million pounds of it for the national school lunch program.
That, Knowles told Food Safety News, is what he thinks caused such a strong reaction when ‘pink slime’ returned to the headlines last month.
“I think there was a genuine reaction to a set of facts on the ground. There was sensationalism with the Jamie Oliver thing, but as more people started to learn about it, more companies distanced themselves from it,” Knowles said. “Not only did the major fast food companies not want to use it any more, places like Wendy’s and Costco went out of their way to say they didn’t use it, that it was not up to standard.”
For one reader, Knowles’ article was a wakeup call. Bettina Siegel, a former-lawyer-turned-blogger and mother of two, first read about LFTB in Moss’ 2009 New York Times article, but mistakenly thought the USDA had already removed it from school lunches in 2010 after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced tougher ground beef standards for schools that July. When it turned out the USDA was instead buying millions of pounds of the stuff, Siegel did something she had never done before: She started a petition.
Siegel’s petition asking the USDA to remove LFTB from the school lunch program went live on March 6, the day between Knowles’ article and Avila’s ABC News broadcast. Within days, it had rallied parents against the product’s claim to lunch trays and eventually amassed more than 250,000 signatures.
“Media reports at the time inferred that consumer concern played a role in these corporations’ decisions, and that bothered me,” Siegel told Food Safety News. “Fast food companies care about profits, and they know full well that consumers will vote with their dollars, but kids eating school food have little voice or power.”
With concerned moms turning against LFTB, there seemed to be little BPI or even the group of governors could do to turn the tide and prevent the company from suspending operations at three of its four processing plants. By the time BPI and the USDA endorsed voluntary labeling of LFTB in early April, the damage was already done.
“This is a difficult situation for BPI. This affects their jobs, their livelihood,” Avila said. “But to the rest of the country, this is a consumer issue. All they want is to know what’s in it and to have the choice to buy it or not. [BPI] thought they could sell it to consumers without letting them know it was there.”
And that’s the real source of the outrage and pushback, BPI’s critics agree: Whether justified or not, people don’t like feeling deceived.
“Hamburger is an iconic American food. It’s like Chevrolet and apple pie,” Avila said. “It’s a staple of what moms serve to their kids, and when they found out that 70 percent of their ground beef contains this material that’s not ground beef but is more like meat Jell-O made from scraps, it was visceral.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. House Agriculture Committee told Food Safety News last week that the committee has not scheduled any hearings on BPI’s coverage in the media. If such a hearing ever were to convene, Avila, Knowles and Siegel each said they would be happy to testify.
Avila added that some of the vocal parents and other BPI critics have been labeled as ‘food snobs’ and ‘elitists’ for their intolerance toward LFTB. But he thinks the nationwide rejection resulted from something more innate than snobbery:
“At some level, when it comes to what they’re feeding their kids,” he said, “every mom becomes an elitist.”