Lessons learned for Cargill in pink slime’s ‘ick’ factor

Consumers react to media coverage Negative reaction to finely textured beef caused plant closures, job losses

SASKATOON — Mike Martin, Cargill’s director of communications, doesn’t call it pink slime.

He calls the meat product by its industry name: finely textured beef.

But it was pink slime that caught public attention in March, and pink slime that caused U.S. beef plant closures and job losses when the public reacted to media, blog and twitter reports that highlighted the product’s “ick” factor.

Martin was matter-of-fact in relating his impressions of the phenomenon at the June 6 International Symposium on Beef Cattle Welfare. He said lessons were learned.

“All of the facts and all of the science of an established process were trumped by emotion and perception in the court of public opinion,” said Martin.

Backlash against the product affected 80 percent of Cargill’s business in finely textured beef, and 1,500 jobs were lost at Cargill and Beef Products Inc. of South Dakota. BPI, which produced 75 percent of the finely textured beef in the United States, closed three of its four plants.

Finely textured beef, known in Canada as partially defatted chopped beef, is made from fatty trim off beef carcasses that has small bits of beef attached, said Martin.

The trim is heated and put in a centrifuge to separate the meat from the fat. The meat is then used in other beef products.

Martin said many consumers would likely be surprised to learn that finely textured beef is added to ground beef to increase its lean content.

Cargill’s smallest plant processes 4,500 head a day and its largest processes 6,000, said Martin. That results in a lot of fatty trim that could be used somewhere in the food supply.

“It’s a tremendous waste not to use this, and the industry has the capacity in the U.S. of about 850 million pounds of finely textured beef annually, or at least it did.”

Though the pink slime term was first coined in 2002, it became a cause célèbre in early 2012 when McDonald’s announced it would no longer use finely textured beef in its burgers. In spring, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave schools a choice on whether to include products with the meat product in school lunch programs.

Blogs, tweets and nine primetime news segments on ABC television followed.

“That kind of coverage is usually reserved for war or something of that nature,” Martin said.

Pink slime was the number one search term on Google for two days and Cargill tracked more than 10,000 online items on the topic.

With more factual information now available to the public, Martin said he is optimistic that markets for finely textured beef will return.

“Frankly, in order to provide all the ground beef that’s necessary in the United States, we’re going to have to use it.”

His story was a cautionary tale to others in the beef industry that factors beyond their control can have a major impact. Reaction to welfare concerns over hog gestation crates is another example.

“We have also seen that retailers and food service operators, in the absence of developing carefully thought-out plans in some cases, will react in the court of public opinion and make decisions that impact the supply chain,” said Martin.

Transparency is at least part of the answer to public concern, he added. He also recommended a proactive approach.

An example of the latter for Cargill was the appearance of general manager Nicole Johnson-Hoffman on the Oprah television show in February 2011.

“Interestingly enough, there were more than 20 other companies approached to participate in this and none of them agreed to do it,” said Martin.

“So Cargill turned out to be the only company represented on the show, which was titled Food 201. By all measures it was, in baseball parlance, a grand slam home run for the beef industry.”

Martin said the public is being desensitized by the news media, which have a “food issue du jour” that often provides conflicting information.

Cargill studies on credibility show consumers rate food scientists first on the list when it comes to food information.

They are followed by nutritionists, USDA officials and animal scientists.

The bottom three on the list are media, grocery stores and bloggers.

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