Americans Have a Beef with Food System Transparency

The best summation I’ve heard of the pink slime debacle comes from blogger and petitioner Bettina Elias Siegel. The use of lean finely textured beef (LFTB) in ground beef,” said Ms. Siegel, is “one of those practices that can thrive only in obscurity.”

And therein lies the crux of the issue. At almost every turn, it seems, we find the food industry working to thwart food system transparency. From lobbying to exempt LFTB from labeling, to industry’s fight against the labeling of genetically engineered foods; from gamesmanship designed to forestall or weaken FDA’s long awaited front-of-package nutritional labeling system, to ag gag laws; from relentless lobbying to weaken the 2010 federal menu labeling law, to industry’s refusal to label meat and dairy products that contain antibiotics and hormones, the food industry appears to be working overtime to hide information from the consumer. Public health attorney and author, Michele Simon likens the pink slime catastrophe to the Wizard of Oz – the curtain has been pulled back for all the world to see the reality behind this process. “A true free market assumes equal access to information,” says Simon. “We are far from it when it comes to our food.”

Not long ago, a certain level of transparency in our food system was expected, even demanded by the consumer. Older Americans can recall when beef was freshly ground at the butcher shop, in front of the customer, to ensure that the butcher didn’t pull a fast one by grinding an inferior cut of meat or slipping in offal. But today, virtually all ground beef comes pre-packaged, produced by a handful of mega-corporations that have all but put the local butcher out of business. And Americans are discovering that transparency is not high on their list of priorities.

Now that the veil has been lifted on BPI’s product and beef industry practices, consumers are getting over the shock that the 100 percent ground beef they thought they had been purchasing is actually 85 percent ground beef and 15 percent low-grade beef scraps prone to pathogens, simmered at a low heat, spun in a centrifuge and sprayed with ammonia gas. BPI’s explanation so far, to the bamboozled American public, has been the curiously inflammatory statement, “Beef is beef,” even though it conjures up images of workers tossing any part of the cow into the grinder — behind the closed gates of beef processing plants, who will ever know?

If the beef industry wants to undo the damage it has inflicted upon itself, and restore trust and confidence in its products and practices, it must alter its business model that seems to flourish on an imbalance of information. To date, the beef industry, in collaboration with the USDA, have made all the decisions about what is acceptable in our beef supply, leaving consumers entirely in the dark. Since it’s now clear that consumers don’t agree, the industry can begin to restore its reputation with full disclosure of all ingredients, additives and processing agents, in understandable English, on product labels. Then, the media, concerned parents, Congress and savvy consumers can turn their focus to why our USDA regulations and laws seem to protect the beef industry’s profits rather than champion the consumer’s right to know what’s in our meat.

Now that BPI has shuttered three plants for 60 days and several governors are rushing to the beleaguered company’s defense, numerous dire warnings are being issued: 1.5 million head of cattle, that don’t exist, are needed to replace the LFTB that consumers have rejected; ground beef prices are sure to rise; shortages of ground beef could occur during the summer grilling season.

A temporary ground beef shortage is hardly an unreasonable price to pay for transparency. Michael Moss reported in the New York Times in 2009 that, “School lunch officials said they ultimately agreed to use the (LFTB) treated meat because it shaved about three cents off the cost of making a pound of ground beef.” An increase of three cents per pound certainly sounds like a fair trade off for those wanting a more pure product. And I fully suspect that if BPI changes its strategy and agrees to label LFTB, a significant number of Americans will choose to buy ground beef that contains the filler.

If the beef industry wants to think outside the box during a shortage, there are other healthy, more palatable fillers that can be added to ground beef (labeled, of course) that could help bring down the price according to Andrew Gunther, Program Director of Animal Welfare Approved, an organization that audits and certifies family farms raising pastured animals for food. “Why don’t we add oats or barley filler like the Europeans do,” said Gunther. ” That way, Americans could produce less beef of a higher quality, add a healthy filler that provides fiber and sell it to the consumer at a lower price.”

Food safety attorney, Bill Marler, while praising BPI for its commitment to extensive pathogen testing of LFTB, was forthright on the issue of transparency in the beef industry. “BPI made a huge mistake by withholding information from the consumer. Nothing should trump the consumers’ right to know.”

No doubt the entire food industry has been paying close attention to the pink slime/LFTB fiasco, as well as emerging grassroots consumer activism demanding a more transparent food system. While the industry continues to hold most of the cards, no food company is immune to consumer outrage when the curtain is drawn back and people feel duped.

I have one final piece of advice for the beef industry. Stop blaming the media, anti-meat activists, elitist foodies, stupid city-slickers who know nothing about agriculture and pesky liberals for your industry’s predicament. The reality is, American consumers have had a peek behind the barriers to transparency that you erected, and they don’t at all like what they saw.

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