Pink Slime vs. lean, finely textured beef. Photos of rats with tumors vs. scientists disputing study methods. Conventionally grown produce vs. local and/or organically grown. Each has been the subject of media “attention.”  And as the inaccuracies in the statements reveal, articles on each have too often been published without true understanding, knowledge or representation of the complete facts. This may be due to media jumping on a story in order to  break it first, as put forth by FoodQualityNews.com (Flawed GM cancer study highlights flawed media approach), or it may be that reporters simply did not have enough knowledge – or desire – to dig further into complete facts. Or it may simply be a matter of economics: Whether you are a newspaper publisher, a TV executive, a web news provider – or a town crier from days of old, your job is to get people to hear what you say; read what you write simply because that keeps the revenue stream flowing. If that means putting out a bit of hype now and again, well so be it. It’s always been done that way, and I don’t see any major change coming around the bend. So, what does this mean to you? Plenty. The Impact of the Media First is the impact of the media – with media having a much wider definition than it did even just a few years ago, as illustrated by the well-known story – and results – of the “pink slime” debacle. Although she was not the originator of the term, it was a mother’s blog posting of a petition to stop the use of “pink slime” in schools (with an incorrect photo) that led to viral publication by both mainstream and social mediathat led to the eventual closing of the majority of BPI plants. A controversy that may be a bit less well-known, but is bound to resonate in the GMO industry for a long time, is the recent publication of the French study “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize,” published in Food and Chemical Toxicology – but now declaimed as flawed. According to the highlights listed in the article: “Female mortality was 2–3 times increased mostly due to large mammary tumors and disabled pituitary. Males had liver congestions, necrosis, severe kidney nephropathies and large palpable tumors.” Although a Google search now brings up more articles refuting the study than accepting it, the initial headlines focused on the study’s “findings” that the genetically modified corn caused tumors in rats—and there were plenty of photos to “prove” it. This case was somewhat extreme in that there was little opportunity for an opposing viewpoint in the initial publication, because a media outlet wanting to receive the pre-embargo copy of the study (enabling quick publication when the embargo was lifted), had to agree to not to speak with any independent experts during the embargo. To add to this, not only were the study’s sample sizes exceptionally small and the rats used in the experiment predisposed to tumors, but the scientists would not release data on the methodologies used—a standard in scientific research. However, few of the initial articles focused on any of these shortcomings. Since that first publication, numerous articles disputing the study have come out, including Monsanto’s response, stating in part: “This study does not meet minimum acceptable standards for this type of scientific research, the findings are not supported by the data presented, and the conclusions are not relevant for the purpose of safety assessment. … There is no plausible mechanism for the results reported with genetically modified maize, and the results are inconsistent with an extensive body of experience and scientific study.” But … How many consumers saw the first front-page articles, then never read the less sensational questioning of the study? And … How many GMO opponents are using statements from the study in their promotion? Many did so immediately, and the study is likely to continue to be cited even once the furor over its authenticity or flaws dies down. These brief examples raise two important issues. The first is our need to educate the media and the second is to have a plan ready as part of crisis preparation to address inappropriate messages around your products or your brand. Our Need to Educate The food industry has a need and responsibility to take a hand in proactively educating the media in order to educate the consumer. As noted by the viral nature of the mother’s “pink slime” blog (and resulting 258,874 petition signers), the challenge of our world today is the fact that it is a great deal more difficult to define media than it was in the past when one knew the town crier by name, had one local newspaper, or three TV stations. Today, we not only have innumerable cable and satellite TV stations, we have uncountable online websites, news pages and blogs that are written by degreed scientists to agenda-driven espousers – and everyone in between. And all are doing whatever they can to get the public’s eye. Which means we have no control. Or do we? It is not an easy task to draw attention to reason in place of sensationalism, but we can fight back. In fact, BPI is doing just that with its lawsuit against ABC News. Irrespective of the outcome of this lawsuit  it has brought public attention to the other side of the story, and shown that it is not going to accept the media’s right to publish without potential consequence. And, at least in this case, its publication of reason has gotten attention: a Google search on BPI ABC brought up almost 6.5 million hits, with at least the first 20 pages being articles on the lawsuit. While some may argue that such a response simply brings the original negative back to consumers’ minds, given the BPI plants that were closed and jobs that were lost; given  the persistent anti-GMO marketing efforts; and given, even, the public’s lack of understanding of the nutrition of organic vs. conventionally grown or the food safety of local vs. large-scale farming – Can industry afford to not fight back? Or, more pragmatically, can we afford to not take the proactive approach and supplant misinformation before it takes hold? My personal experience with the media is that many in the media strive for an accurate and appropriate story. This cadre of solid food reporters should be encouraged and helped to achieve their goal of appropriate reporting. To this end, the industry could more actively reach out to these key players and help them understand aspects of the food industry when things are going well and before we are all in crisis mode. When it comes to being prepared as an organization, this is part of good crisis management planning. Be ready with your talking points and experts for when the need arises. Track social media constantly and consider using a team of “Mommy Bloggers” who will be honest in their opinion but are familiar with your products, your philosophy and your goals of constantly producing safe foods. Today we have to be more vigilant and more aware of media than ever. The power of the media to destroy a brand should never be underestimated, and it is time to recognize this. So establish allegiances, ensure your programs are robust, and manage the media before they manage you. This post originally appeared October 18, 2012 on the Leavitt Partners’ Food Safety blog.

  • MV

    How about we cut off the middle man, educate the comsumer first? Just as you mentioned, the “pink slime” term was origionated by a mother’s blog. With all the social media, comsumers can do just as much damage as midia.

    • The term originated with a member of the government, in an email where he was expressing his concern about the product. 

      Consumers don’t do damage. Consumers are what keeps companies running. 

      • Michael Bulger

        I was going to point this out, as well. The term was first made public in the New York Times, when the newspaper published an article detailing the safety and quality failings of BPI.

        Dr. Acheson hinges a good portion of his argument on his mistake. If I cared about basic facts (and I believe the little things are important when dealing with public opinion), Dr. Acheson’s piece would make me question the wisdom of hiring Leavitt Partners for PR work.

  • Yes, it is more difficult for agricultural concerns to control media today than yesterday. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. 

    How can the industry talk about educating consumers when it does everything in its power to keep consumers in the dark? 

    How many ag-gag laws have been enacted in states?

    How many companies have poured millions into the No on Prop 37 campaign?

    BPI had the opportunity a long time ago to educate people about its adulterated product, but chose the route to explicitly hide both the process and use of it. Then when people found out, and reacted in a way that just isn’t surprising, then the company does stupid like sue a major network and legitimate whistleblowers.You write “Can industry afford to not fight back?”You just don’t get it. You don’t even realize that the people you’re fighting back against, are your customers.Well, here’s a nice agricultural metaphor for you: the horse has left the barn; no matter what you do, it ain’t going back. 

  • Jon

    What do some former government officials do when they’re out of office? Lobbying for the industries you once were involved in regulating is big — and so is the Spin-doctoring business for businesses, selling “intelligence”and crisis management planning. 

    This “story” is really an industry ad  for the Leavitt Partners, headed by Michael O. Leavitt former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary and EPA Administrator under the industry-friendly GW Bush Administration and staffed by a long list of former government agency personnel. Author Dr David W. K. Acheson, M.D.,  is a former FDA Associate Commissioner for Foods.

    Their website touts: “Our newsroom is designed to provide journalists and thought leaders with pertinent, accurate information. If you’re a member of the media on deadline, please reach out to the key contacts listed in the right column of the newsroom page about which you have a question.”While the media control on “pink slime” got away from them the French cancerous rats story was quickly extinquished. The  always vigilant Biotech Industry is nothing but a master at media obfuscation and crisis management. But as Doctor Acheson points out the citizenry has greater access than ever before to new forms of not-easily-controlled media, much of it on the Interwebz, driving more and more corporations into the arms of the Spin Doctors.However, they well  know that it’s hard to keep a lid on — as follow-up reports on the French GMO feed study tell the true story:(From Institute of Science in Society — http://www.isis.org.uk/Excess_cancers_and_deaths_from_GM_feed_stats_stand_up.php)      “In September 2012, the research team led by Gilles-Eric Séralini at the University of Caen published the findings of their feeding trial on rats to test for toxicity of Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) maize NK603 and/or Roundup herbicide in the online edition of Food and Chemical Toxicology [1].Séralini and his colleagues had previously found evidence for toxicity of GM feed in data from Monsanto’s own experiments, which they had obtained through a Freedom of Information demand [2]. Monsanto challenged their conclusions and, to no one’s great surprise the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) supported Monsanto [3]. So the team decided to run their own experiment, using an unusually large number of animals and over a period of about two years, roughly the life expectancy of the rats, rather than the usual 90 days required in toxicity trials including Monsanto’s.What Séralini and his colleagues found was that NK603 and Roundup are not only both toxic as expected, but also carcinogenic, which was unexpected. The proportion of treated rats that died during the experiments was much greater than the controls; moreover, in almost all groups a higher proportion developed tumours, and the tumours appeared earlier.As soon as the paper appeared, the GM lobby swung into action. In particular, the Science Media Centre (SMC), a London-based organisation partly funded by industry, quickly obtained quotes from a number of pro-GM scientists and distributed them to the media [4]. According to a report in Times Higher Education [5], the SMC succeeded in influencing the coverage of the story in the UK press and largely kept it off the television news.Séralini has rebutted the pro-GM critics point by point on the CRIIGEN website [6].  The statistician Paul Deheuvels, a professor at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris and a member of the French Académie des sciences, has now drawn attention to another serious error in the criticisms [7]: the complaint that Séralini used only 10 rats per group when the OECD guidelines [8] recommend 50 for investigations on carcinogenesis. Because the experiments did not follow the accepted protocol, their results, they argue, can be safely ignored.In the first place, this was not a wilful disregard of the guidelines. The experiment was designed to test for toxicity, and for that the recommended group size is 10.But Deheuvels pointed out that the fact Séralini and his colleagues had used smaller groups than recommended makes the results if anything more convincing, not less. That is because using a smaller number of rats actually made it less likely to observe any effect. The fact that an effect was observed despite the small number of animals made the result all the more serious.

    • Amber D.

      Actually, a smaller sample size isn’t better. You need to account for variability and uncertainty, which will be present no matter how much you control for everything. So, with that small of a size, it is hard to say if the effect is due to chance or to the effect itself.  Larger sample size=more statistical power.  

    • Oginikwe

      This “story” is really an industry ad  for the Leavitt Partners, headed by Michael O. Leavitt former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary and EPA Administrator under the industry-friendly GW Bush Administration and staffed by a long list of former government agency personnel. Author Dr David W. K. Acheson, M.D.,  is a former FDA Associate Commissioner for Foods.”

      Thank you for this information. As I read the article, I wondered why this was so biased and not about actually educating people but about the right slant to put on things.

      People don’t like pink slime because they thought they were buying ground meat and just ground meat with out gristle, connective tissues, or the ammonia.  The industry has a tin ear and a blind eye.

  • guest

    I read this article yesterday and it has been irritating me since.   
    I agree with Shelly’s comments, in the face of Ag-Gag laws and what looks like corporate shenanigans, consumers in search of the truth about what they are eating are treated like the bad guys. If BPI had responded to the pink slime stories with any amount of integrity the out come would have been completely different.  They chose to treat the consumers like fools – so I would say it is BPI and others in the industry that need educated.  Consumers are not idiots and have every right to know what is in food and they have every right to not consume that food.  I have worked in food processing 25+ years and the idea of trying to spin the facts to make them more palatable to consumers is repulsive.  
    And I agree with Jon, this article appears to be an ad for Leavitt Partners. 

  • Cmjfriesians

    Consumers do PLENTY of damage with their assumptions and opinions based on what they see in the media without researching the facts themselves.  And while some people do try to research the facts, surprisingly enough,  a lot of people believe what they read in Joe Schmoe’s personal blog.  For god sakes, most of the chain emails I get are absolutely ridiculous, whether it be about politics, food, government, private companies, etc. – and people think it’s TRUE or at least mostly true or they wouldn’t forward it!!
    Yes, consumers keep companies running, and yes companies ultimately have to comply with what the consumer wants.. but sometimes what the consumer believes is so ridiculous that companies hurt themselves making changes that don’t affect safety or quality..  just to make the consumer happy.   It is all about consumer perception – and consumers perception is largely based on what they see in the media or read about on some social network.