The Perfect Storm: How the Pink Slime Debacle Created Food System Change

Something remarkable happened recently in the world of food reform.

The pink slime debacle created the perfect storm of food system change, thanks to a combination of evocative language, consumer activism, arrogant industry behavior, viral social media, relentless mainstream media reporting and scientists willing to go on the record. In less than a month, the pink slime story – in essence, that the meat industry had been surreptitiously mixing a cheap filler into America’s ground beef supply – managed to incite a massive grass roots uprising of angry, repulsed American consumers, who voted with their voices and their wallets, forcing major changes in both meat industry practices and USDA school lunch policy.

The people most responsible for this successful uprising – reporters David Knowles of The Daily and Jim Avila of ABC News, whistleblower Kit Foshee, former USDA microbiologists Gerald Zirnstein and Carl Custer, and blogger Bettina Elias Siegel whose petition to ban pink slime in school food went viral, deserve our deepest gratitude. Collectively, they managed to accomplish in a few short weeks what the food reform movement has been hoping to do for years — highlight a food system problem, incite consumer activism and create rapid, sustainable change in both policy and practice.

Inciting grass roots involvement in food system issues is critical – yet, until the pink slime debacle, consumer uprisings have mostly eluded the movement. Why did this issue and confluence of events create such a powerful consumer reaction? How can we incite more grass roots activism to support policies that will make our food system healthier and safer?

Some of the answers may lie in what we’ve learned from the perfect storm surrounding the pink slime issue. Here’s my take on the lessons learned:

1. We need to engage consumers on the issues they care about if we want their attention. Many food reformers were quick to dismiss the Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) debacle because they felt it was the least of our worries when it comes to our broken food system. But pink slime clearly struck a nerve with consumers and that’s reason enough to sit up and take notice. If we want grass roots support for improving our food system, we must be in tune with the issues that resonate with consumers. Whether you think pink slime was a critical food reform issue – or not – it’s clear that consumers now have a new level of awareness of unsavory food industry practices and how industry doesn’t hesitate to include unappetizing ingredients in America’s food supply without informing the public. It was a powerful lesson for many consumers and one that will make them more open to new information about food industry misdeeds.

2. Language counts. The moniker “pink slime” clearly caught the public’s attention and helped fuel the grass roots uprising. The food industry has known for decades how important language is in marketing their products. That’s why they spend billions yearly naming and marketing food and drink, and wording dubious health claims. Food reformers need to use language to our advantage as well, crafting more carefully worded, evocative descriptions of unsavory ingredients and unhealthy industry practices.

3. Big Meat’s arrogance helped turn public opinion against them. The meat industry’s response to the pink slime debacle can be best summed up, as public health attorney Michele Simon put it, as “Shut up and eat your hamburger.” Their damage-control campaign “Beef is beef,” somehow manages to both insult consumers’ intelligence and highlight industry arrogance by conjuring up images of workers tossing any part of the cow into the grinder. The meat industry has, inexplicably, never managed to grasp the obvious: consumers feel duped by industry and find LFTB unappetizing. Yet, rather than apologize, Big Meat seems to think they can bully the public into eating LFTB by insisting that the consumer is “misinformed” and ensuring us that LFTB is safe. Let’s make sure that the American public remembers the arrogance.

4. Instead of preaching to the choir let’s get our food reform messages out to a larger audience. The mainstream media, particularly television network news, brings food reform messages to a much broader audience. Jim Avila’s excellent pink slime reports on ABC World News were key to inciting consumer outrage and activism. Food reformers should develop stronger relationships with mainstream network reporters and news shows.

5. Highlight how government, more often than not, seems to protect industry rather than the consumer. Many consumers were astonished that the government allowed LFTB to be added to ground beef without mention on the label. Why is it that the economic well-being of big industry often seems more important to the USDA than the consumer’s right to know and make informed choices? This is a good question and one we should keep asking loudly and publicly.

6. We need a national grass roots network of concerned consumers willing to take frequent action on food reform and food safety issues. Nothing changes policy and practice faster than an outpouring of anger and disgust from consumers who also vote with their wallets. Bettina Elias Siegel’s petition proved that point on LFTB in school food. And consumer rejection of pink slime at the nation’s grocery stores proved the point in the marketplace. Why haven’t we yet developed a national grass roots network of consumer activists who can be counted on to speak out on a variety of food reform and food safety issues?

7. Social media can help level the playing field for food reformers. Food reformers will never be able to compete with Big Food or Big Ag’s deep pockets, massive marketing campaigns, lobbying prowess, campaign donations or their ability to hire the best PR, messaging and marketing firms money can buy.  But we can effectively use inexpensive social media techniques to reach a much broader and deeper audience.

8. Consumers despise being deceived, yet a deliberate lack of transparency appears to be a standard food industry business model. The beef industry clearly worked hard to hide the fact that inexpensive pink slime had been added to 70 percent of America’s ground beef, no doubt fearing that consumers would be turned off. We all know that industry works overtime to ensure that other information is hidden from the consumer. From ag-gag bills to misleading/impossible to decipher ingredient names; to fraudulent or shaky health claims; to industry’s attempt to derail front of package labeling; to food poisoning cases where the restaurant name is withheld indefinitely; we can do a better job of highlighting to a wide audience how Americans are being misled, duped, bamboozled and just plain lied to by the food industry, often with the help of government agencies.

My final “radical” takeaway is this. If food reformers ever hope to improve America’s food system through policy change, we’re going to have to become much more active in demanding and supporting campaign finance reform at the local, state and national level. Big Food and Big Ag’s ability to use campaign donations and aggressive lobbying to influence legislators’ votes and opinions has stalled important food policy all across the nation. It has also influenced government agency rulemaking and the regulatory process – as BPI’s campaign contributions over the past decade have demonstrated.

The pink slime perfect storm was one of those rare and wonderful events where consumers were able to hear the truth before the big money industry spin machine could control the message. We won’t see a food reform perfect storm again, any time soon, unless we learn to create our own.

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