Tag Archives: pink slime

ABC News’ $1.2 billion “pink slime” lawsuit may affect journalism for years

ABC News slimed the beef industry, and producers of “lean, fine-textured beef” (LFTB) in a series of news reports about the product made from beef trimmings and used as an ingredient in much of the ground beef supply. I highlighted it in several posts because it was in my opinion a classic example of scare tactics and false reporting aimed at ratings that resulted in real harm–not just to the company, but the public. As such, it was an example of the kind of media coverage that I think is hurting us as well as an example of what the food industry overall is in for.

Personally, I was very happy to see BPI, the company nearly bankrupted by the attacks, fighting back with a defamation lawsuit against ABC News. A lawsuit that could conceivably cost The Disney Company, owner of ABC, $1.2 billion. This article from Reuters does a great job of exploring in detail the claims and counter claims involving this case. I think it is one that crisis communicators need to be watching carefully. Here are some key issues:

– our laws protect the news media against defamation to a very great degree. This is great giving our high value on free speech. This case has more potential because of state law designed to help protect agriculture. While news media can do just about anything they want, they need to be careful about intentionally saying things they know not to be true. This is largely where this case will hang.

– The tweets of ABC reporter Jim Avila are critical to BPI’s case. So there is going to be an important question raised here. In those tweets he said in effect that pink slime was not meat. But he knew it was meat. But, he didn’t say it wasn’t meat on the air. Is there a difference in defamation between a tweet and an on-air broadcast? This will be very important to watch.

– There is much the ABC reporters did not say that would have contributed to the balance in the story. One example: the prime former BPI employee who they used to attack his former employer lost a wrongful termination lawsuit and the company got a restraining order against him for his threats against the owner. He threatened to find another way to get even. None of this was included in the ABC report–instead they treated him as having high credibility.

– The core question is, is name calling defamation? It’s interesting to read the Reuters article to see how opposing attorneys are using dictionary definitions of “slime” to bolster their case. The law protects the media against name calling, so calling it slime in itself would be protected speech. But to knowing say that something is harmful when you know it isn’t constitutes defamation. So, if somebody says to you, “don’t eat that, it is slime,” is that saying to you it is harmful? I think so, but I am clearly biased. The point however is how cautious journalists need to be in labeling something they are covering. And I think journalists all over are watching this and the result will be a little more caution about the use of “rhetorical hyperbole” which ABC’s lawyers are using to justify their coverage.

Whether the Roths win this case or not, I for one am grateful that they brought it forward. There is far too little accountability on the damage done by journalists. There is a trend developing here, such as Elon Musk and New York Time’s John Broder’s nasty review of the Tesla. Where there was a great imbalance in power in the mainstream media, that power is shifting. In part it is shifting because of irresponsible ratings chasing that has resulted in extremely low trust ratings But the biggest reason is that the monopoly on information distribution and sharing has been forever broken.

 

Now we’ll find out who really creates slime–Beef Products Inc. sues ABC News

Remember the “pink slime” story? There have been few news stories in the last while that so got my goat as this one. First New York Times dubbed this 100% beef product “pink slime”, then celebrity chef Jamie Oliver got in the act and through outrageous demonstration showed that this product was actually poison, and then Jim Avila of ABC News jumped on the band wagon and did stories on this horrific stuff being fed to us and our kids in our innocent hamburger.

This was “infotainment” at some of its worst, and the price paid was high. Beef prices did jump for a bit, schools refused to buy hamburger using the product known in the industry as “lean, finely textured beef,” and grocery stores took it off their shelves. Meat processors had to shut down and the main producer, BPI, laid off over 650 workers.

Now, they are fighting back with a $1.2 billion (yes, billion) lawsuit against ABC News. The legal standard for libel and defamation is exceptionally high, and I am grateful for that because protecting a free and open press is vitally important to all of us. Consequently I think that BPI has a big hill to climb. But I also think that ABC is going to have to answer some tough questions. I only regret that Jamie Oliver was not named as I thought his behavior on that show was inexcusable (see crisisblogger story linked above for link to his show YouTube).

Let me be very clear here. I have no problem with people deciding they don’t want lean, finely textured beef in their hamburger. I have no problem with full disclosure and food companies saying exactly what’s in the food. I have a huge problem with labeling a product with a name like slime, picturing use of ammonia in maintaining food safety as some dubious chemical practice when ammonia itself is present in beef and a normal part of making tons of food products like ice cream. In short, if you are going to tell a story about something like a beef product you don’t like, you better tell more of the story than was told here and you better be careful about how you lead your audiences by false characterizations. In other words, for God’s sake, be honest. There is plenty of bad stuff being done by bad people to tell the truth about it. Don’t go around making it up and then pretend you are a responsible journalist.

BPI was horribly ill-prepared to respond to the crisis as so many in food production are. But I for one am grateful that they are going to try and hold ABC to account for the damage done.

 

 

Man bites dog: media doesn’t overhype BSE problem

Frequent crisisblogger readers know how tough I am on today’s media coverage that focuses on fear and outrage to compete for scarce readers and viewers. So, in a man bites dog sort of turn-around, I am sharing this story from Columbia Journalism Review that suggests the media took a fairly nuanced approach to the latest discovery of mad cow disease.

“Mad cow disease,” like “pink slime” by its very name screams for attention. I have a picture in my head of a cow running around, eyes rolling, bumping into trees and fences. I do believe there was some coverage that could qualify as fear mongering, but in general, I think the media did a good job of conveying important reassurance messages from USDA and putting this particular situation in proper perspective.

This is a far cry from the pink slime controversy. But, while the initial reaction of the beef industry to the pink slime and then the BSE problem was to say, Oh no, we are in for it now, it appears that there is minimal damage to the industry from these two situations. Here is a reassuring word sent to the ag industry from a leading weekly newspaper, Capital Press, serving the Western states.

Given the heighten concerns caused by pink slime and the slimey way it was treated in the press, it is an interesting comment to see that such kind of event may have minimal collateral damage. I suspect BPI, the company with shuttered plants, may not feel so good about it, however.

Food safety–what food producers have in common with tobacco and big oil

Yesterday I was interviewed by Capital Press, the West Coast newspaper for agri-business (I’m a subscriber and use it to keep up on issues facing farmers and food producers).  The question was food safety and crises facing farmers and food manufacturers, ala “pink slime.” I won’t repeat my comments about pink slime and the sliminess of that controversy, but the interview with a reporter asking a lot of very good questions got me thinking about this very important issue.

I’d like to summarize some of what we discussed and share some of my thoughts about what is happening related to food safety.

1. Farmers and the food industry are in a much bigger crisis than they realize.

The ground has shifted underneath their feet. Some know it and are trying to change. Many know it and think it is stupid and refuse to change. Probably most don’t know it. The shifting ground is public opinion and society’s values. There can be no question that the trend in our society is against agri-chemicals and high volume production methods and toward small, organic, minimal impact and minimal use of man-made chemicals or things like genetic engineering. We’ll go into reasons for this in a bit. But that is where we are going and in many ways where we are already, and that means a lot of people who are benefiting from the inexpensive food they eat every day will join any bandwagon to stop the practices they consider unhealthy or unsustainable.

2. Societal value shifts mean big trouble for those who do not respond.

OK, let’s talk about tobacco. My wife loves old movies so we watch a lot of black and white movies. You know, the kind where everyone cool smokes. It wasn’t long ago that smoking was glamorous and hip. Now, if you light up anywhere in public you are going to get a serious stink eye if not be actually accosted by the enforcers around you. Please, don’t get me wrong–creating cheap potatoes and beans is not like growing tobacco because we now know a lot better what tobacco does to us (even though evidence around second hand smoke is mostly bogus). But, societal values changed, smoking became uncool and the government has stepped in to all but ban it. Perhaps the food industry is more like big oil. We all enjoy the products they make while at the same time thinking that those who make them are nothing but scumbags and destroyers of the environment.

3. Activism married with junk science married with media in desperate search of audiences are major contributors.

Many will say that my analogy between tobacco and high production food is appropriate because both are very bad for you. I strongly disagree as we’ll see below. But the process underway against production food is very similar to what happened with tobacco and to some degree big oil. Those who brought the dangers of smoking to light had a receptive audience with journalists who, as former journalist Jon Entine says, have an activist mentality themselves. Besides, what headline will get desperately needed audiences: “this stuff will kill you”? or “Scientific evidence uncertain about dangers”? Now, as it turns out, we should be grateful to those activists, scientists and journalists because it is well established that smoking and tobacco are major causes of cancer. What worries me, however, is that the same process is underway in food safety without the scientific consensus. There are many who have a dog in the hunt for toxic foods and will use whatever flimsy evidence there may be to raise funds for their NGO and scare audiences into watching their newscasts or their website. The truth, too often lost, is that the good food under attack is not bad for you like tobacco was and we have plenty of evidence to prove it. (Take for example the fact that in 1950 there were 2500 people living over 100 years of age, while in 2050 that number is expected to be 600,000–amazing considering all the poison these people are putting in their bodies thinking it is healthy.)

The media looks in every story for the white hats and black hats. The NGOs are more than willing to accept the white hat and put the black hat on anyone doing their best to make a living out of coaxing food from the land–on any scale other than what can be sold at a farmer’s market.

3. It’s the politicians who really scare me.

I happen to believe looking at all the laws, regulations and ways that government intercedes on our life that we already have a “nanny state,” and it is getting worse all the time. I heard one activist in the food area say that people are too stupid to make intelligent choices about the food they eat and so the government must control it for them. Seriously. We see it already. Banning transfats. Banning BPA, even though the scientific consensus is firmly behind its safety, and as “Chemophobia” author Jon Entine states, it is being replaced with likely less safe replacements so that companies like Nalgene and Campbells can say: “BPA Free!” We’ve got legislation pending that tells farmers how many chickens they can have in a cage–the animal rights issues are a second and related element to this food producer crisis. The election-eager politicians always want to jump in and save the hapless public from the blackhats that the media have conveniently created. We’ve only seen the beginning and it will not be long before food will be subject to legislation like “calories per pound” or some equivalent to the miles per gallon requirements on the automotive industry.

4. The industry needs to accept the new rules of transparency.

While I strongly oppose efforts to legislate things like what we eat, I also recognize that people need to be educated about food, what is good for them and what not so good. One look at any city street filled with people and you know we have a big problem with eating–we eat too much and too much bad stuff. But what I favor over legislation is education and transparency. A lot of farmers have a hard time with this. They don’t want people to know what every process is and what every ingredient is. But that is what is expected today and the hyper-connected world makes keeping secrets impossible and impossibly dangerous.

My message to farmers is: if what you are doing can’t stand the light of day, change it now before you become the next pink slime victim. If what you are doing can be justified in terms of human benefit, including providing very healthy food at remarkably low costs, then for goodness sake, come out with it, state it proudly and defend yourself.

5.  The debate is on–time to join the discussion.

I happen to believe that it would be a travesty for high production food to go away and be replaced by nothing but micro-farmers using nothing but old leaves or grass clippings to grow our food. I’m all for those people who can afford to buy artisan food and I absolutely love to see this trend develop. I’ve got family members growing some of the best food around commercially–on a small scale. But just because it is better, tastes better, and may even in some cases be marginally better for you does not mean that the world will be a better place if all farmers raised our food on two acre plots. In fact, millions would starve. The fact is that while we in this rich country benefit from not having to use a big part of our paychecks to pay for food (unless we choose to), others in the world will go hungry and even starve to death with even minor changes in food costs. Remember the ethanol subsidies which were intended to help corn growers use their corn for fuel. Here’s what wikipedia says:

A July 2008 World Bank report[147] found that from June 2002 to June 2008 “biofuels and the related consequences of low grain stocks, large land use shifts, speculative activity and export bans” accounted for 70–75% of total price rises.

Those price rises led to many deaths by starvation, riots in Egypt and a major disruption in lives. While we Americans benefit from incredibly healthy food, we live in a global marketplace where a decrease in high production food is going to hurt a lot of people.

Take pink slime. Jamie Oliver (who didn’t coin the term but certainly got the furor going on his TV show) has not only cost many good people their jobs, he and Jim Avila of ABC News are responsible for a rather sharp rise in the cost of beef. While they may think they have saved many school children from eating unhealthy hamburgers in school, the fact is that lean, finely textured beef (what it was called before pink slime took off) is 100% beef and 100% safe. But, it makes ground beef less expensive, and now with school budgets being what they are it is likely that less burgers will be served in schools. The increased price of ground beef at the supermarket may just make it a rarer treat for those who could benefit from the protein and enjoy the great taste. I don’t think Oliver and Avila did us any favors.

Well meaning people who advocate for growing all food the Jamie Oliver way will hurt a lot of people if they win the argument. And they are winning, because so far it is a one-sided debate.

Farmers and food producers are not inclined to get in this public debate about food safety. They hope it goes away. They are confident people will keep buying. In that way they remind me of the oil industry about 25 years ago. The ground was shifting, and some in the industry wanted to speak out, to talk about the realities of global energy needs, to inform the public about the benefits of cheap energy, but some said (including some with the biggest numbers) that they will buy our products whether they like us or not, so what does it matter? True, but it does matter. Oil permits are a hot political issue, where to explore is deeply political. Build a pipeline to access more crude? Deeply divisive. All because of this shifting ground and the unwise decision to let the activists and headline-hunting media have the field. We’re paying a lot for fuel right now–in part because industry leaders 25 years ago stuck their heads in the sand regarding public sentiment. (By the way, if they engaged the public they likely would have realized a lot earlier that doing things to protect the environment was a high public value and would have done more without government regulations.)  This is a plea to the production food industry to not make the same mistake–for all our sakes.

This qualifies as a rant, no doubt. I know many don’t agree with me on many of the points I raised here. But if my plea to the food industry is to get into the debate, my plea to those who disagree is to ask–if you knew your preference for smaller, healthier, “better” food would result in those who desperately need any food to go hungry, would you still campaign so loudly for your preferences? I’ve been accused of wanting to protect the “big, corporate farmers.” Sure, I do. Because I want to protect everyone’s ability to have healthy, inexpensive foods, and the last time I checked, we still needed those big farmers and producers to do that.

How to combat the “pink slime” attack?

Beef Products Inc. (BPI) is in a fight for its life because of the labeling of their beef product as pink slime and the fear and outrage generated by Jamie Oliver, ABC News and others, including Food Inc. It will be interesting to watch how they try to recover. Seems a pretty steep challenge given the widespread news reports and the epithet “slime.”

Here’s one example of what they are doing. It’s a video on YouTube showing their response to the way they were treated by the producers of Food Inc. For personal reasons I won’t comment further, but let you be the judge.

Would love to hear some crisisblogger readers comment on how BPI should react–other than saying that now is too little and too late.

“Pink Slime” vs. 100% beef–crisis destroys a company and thousands of jobs

Can social media and “black hat” mainstream media destroy jobs and a company unnecessarily? That’s a central question for those involved in crisis management. Clearly, the answer is yes, which is why those of us involved keep saying: prepare now.

Beef Products Inc. (BPI) is the company at the heart of the “pink slime” debate. I’m not sure if Jamie Oliver coined the term “pink slime,” but if he didn’t he certainly sparked the widespread interest in this product. From the huge and predictable reaction, given the sensationalist nature of Oliver’s presentation, in social media, the story leaped to the front pages by a further sensationalist report particularly by ABC News.

What is “pink slime” and why the outcry? It is beef trimmings that has been treated with ammonia hydroxide gas to eliminate harmful bacteria such as e.coli. Oliver’s complaint is about the beef trimmings and in this video of his TV show he holds up gross-looking pieces of beef and suitable disgusting audience reaction when he mentions that this in your school food. I wish that Oliver would be honest and also show the ingredients of much of German and Italian sausage that he no doubt thinks is among the greatest food on earth (and on that subject I would agree). But he is selective, sensationalist and fundamentally dishonest in my mind.

But he got the reaction he wanted. By showing selective ingredients he suitably disgusted the audience. But then he opens a locked cabinet to reveal “all your household chemicals” including a bottle with a skull on it to show it is poison marked “ammonia.”

(screenshot from Jamie Oliver’s presentation on pink slime)

And, of course, that’s the killer because why would you eat anything treated with a chemical that has a skull on it and needs to be kept safe from children in a locked cabinet?

I’ve always enjoyed Jamie Oliver and think a lot of him as a chef and entertainer, but I find this treatment of “pink slime” disgusting and irresponsible. But, never to miss an opportunity to create fear and outrage, ABC jumped on the story (remember ABC was the primary “investigator” behind Toyota’s “software” problems that turned out to be bogus. Never did see an apology or acceptance of responsibility from ABC and Brian Ross on that one.) Because of the now near panic created by the sensationalist TV entertainment and news stories, the retailers reacted by pulling the product from the shelves, schools refused to provide beef products that included “pink slime,” and pressure was put on government regulators for failing to do their job. No doubt we have our “white knight” legislators already rewriting the rule book on beef products to eliminate pink slime from the marketplace.

The upshot? BPI has shut down all but one of its plants, and is now going on the “offensive” to try to recover its brand, its product and its reputation.

But, another strange thing is happening. News reports are now coming out suggesting that the product isn’t necessarily bad or harmful and the company may have been wronged.

What’s the truth? Yes, the “lean, finely textured beef” that has now become labeled as pink slime includes bits and pieces of beef. But, as the label states, it is beef. And the deadly chemical ammonia hydroxide? Turns out it is a natural chemical found in beef, but a small amount is added to what is already in the beef in order to destroy harmful bacteria.

I blogged yesterday about the Culture of Fear. This shows how entertainers like Jamie know how to play to that, and how reporters and producers know how to attract audiences by heightening fears. It shows how crisis normally start in social media or from videos posted on YouTube and rapidly gain momentum both from amplifying messages in social media and mainstream media. Each step of the process heightens the fear and outrage. It shows how companies, understandably sensitive to their own business, respond at the first sign of consumer reaction and pull the product, further amplifying the message that this stuff must really be bad.

I want to throw open the window, say I’m mad as hell and won’t take this any more! When will we come to our senses and realize that we are being played like a violin?

There are three big lessons from this sad story:

1) We’re only at the beginning of a very disruptive reevaluation of our food. It’s going to be painful. And ultimately, it may signal the end of affordable food. I worry about those who, unlike Jamie, can’t afford food using only the most pristine ingredients and processes.

2) Transparency and disclosure are essential. BPI, like all other food manufacturers, had better come clean and fully disclose what they are doing. It’s better to do it in advance. Don’t wait for new labeling laws. If you are hesitant because you think people won’t understand and buy your product, you may have to change what you are doing. The fact is, people are getting very concerned and if what you are doing is right and good, then tell people. If not, change it now while you can and are not forced to close your plants or business because of this kind of overreaction.

3) Prepare. Sorry BPI, but you should have been prepared. Coming out on the offensive now is far far too late. Yes, a massive response was required given the legs the Jamie Oliver hit piece generated. But, this is a warning to all food manufacturers: you may be next. Your product may be “slimed,” given a disgusting name and the chemicals and processes used may be fodder for an attention hungry entertainer or reporter (not sure of the difference these days). You’d better be ready for a massive effort to counter the fear mongering and outrage-hyping that is certain to come about other food products in the very near future.