BPI Former Employee: “Pink Slime Ate My Job.” Or was It BPI’s Decision Not to Disclose LFTB on Labels?
Former Beef Products, Inc. (BPI) employee Bruce Smith has filed a lawsuit concurrently with publishing his new book, “How Pink Slime Ate My Job.” (Apparently, Mr. Smith alleges that media publicity concerning the widespread, unlabeled addition of Lean, Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) to ground beef decreased BPI’s sales and resulted in company layoffs.) Free copies of Smith’s book and his lawsuit will be available at his June 26, 2012 press conference.
Iowa Rep. Steve King has stated he supports Mr. Smith’s use of the court system to “get to the bottom of this” alleged controversy, but why? And why has he stated that the federal government should order public schools to buy LFTB for their discounted lunch programs? (Only three states have chosen to purchase LFTB next year due to public demand to curtail its use.)
Do these have anything to do with the fact that BPI is one Rep. King’s top 20 campaign contributors? For other social issues, Congressman King has raised a concern that the nation’s “runaway judiciary” plays an “active role in the lives of our children.” Rep. King also contends he is “a firm believer in states’ rights” and the need to “protect parental rights from being infringed by the federal government.” Why is the LFTB/pink slime controversy any different?
Another unanswered question for Mr. Smith and Rep. King: if LFTB is so great, why did BPI make a concerted effort to avoid labeling it instead of just disclosing it on product packaging? The free market Rep. King supports requires freely-available information so consumers can make intelligent buying decisions. Two LFTB producers have submitted labeling requests to the USDA, because some consumers who have learned more about the product want to buy it. Good for them. As Marion Nestle (quoting Carolyn Scott-Thomas) noted, if companies selling this product had proactively disclosed its presence in the first instance, they might have minimized customer outrage (and BPI job losses) from its recent publicity.
By now, the use of “lean, finely textured beef” (LFTB, known to its detractors as “pink slime”) in ground beef products is well-known. And that’s the problem. If its manufacturers had been proactive in disclosing (and even advertising) its use instead of waiting for others to define the debate, then they may have minimized their risk of huge financial losses.
The purpose of this posting is not to take sides in the “pink slime” vs. “boneless lean beef” debate or to argue that one side’s arguments are more palatable, no pun intended.
Rather, it is to highlight the importance of labeling, advertising, and promotional practices as part of a proactive risk management program. That’s why this blog addresses more than just food safety issues; regardless of the product’s purported safety or purity, the key issue appears to be the lack of disclosure to consumers. Why did it take 20-plus years for consumers to be able to identify what products contain this ingredient? How could BPI, the largest producer of this product, not have seen this PR train wreck coming?
The irony of industry complaints about how the media have “smeared” the product and its producers’ reputations is that the industry’s wounds are almost entirely self-inflicted. The producers chose not to disclose the pervasive addition of the product to ground beef, so critics naturally focused on why it was concealed from the public. Iowa Rep. Steve King called for congressional hearings about the product’s critics, stating “they’ll have an obligation then to explain themselves why they could not base their allegations on facts and what they’ve done to damage an industry.” However, the congressman failed to address a key issue: if the producers had disclosed these “facts” proactively, there would probably have been no “damage” to the industry.
Consumers for decades (if not longer) have expected their ground “100 percent beef” to appear this way, not this way. Similarly, BPI does not have even one picture of its product anywhere on its website or in its YouTube video rebuttals to films like Food Inc. Its published images portray children enjoying burgers and the high technology used to produce its product. Its videos feature company officers, a scientist who can’t make eye contact with the camera, and a lobbyist. The lack of disclosure begs the question of what else might be in food fed to children?
Now, imagine that the companies producing this product had focused proactively on its claimed merits: that it’s a safe, sustainable, low cost, way to enjoy beef. Photos of production machinery that looks like an indoor oil refinery just might appeal to the market segment that enjoys products like toxic waste candy. Perhaps a catchy brand name like “spin safe” ™ could have defined the debate about using centrifuges to separate fat from lean meat. Most importantly, calls for mandatory labeling of the product would become irrelevant; half of consumers do not read labels anyway.
Lesson learned: manage labeling, advertising, and promotional issues proactively.
Please see my new article in Food and Beverage Packaging regarding exaggerated labeling claims and potential liability for false advertising and unfair competition.