Sunday, April 08, 2012

Pink slime is good for you

Image by Avidor
The pink slime episode proves that the more American consumers learn about their food, the less they like it. The beef industry's public relations strategy is incapable of convincing consumers that "pink slime is good for you," because rejection of pink slime is a repudiation of industrial food.

On Sunday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune joined the "pink slime is good for you" push, echoing the talking points of the food industry flacks.
That ought to prompt some serious questions about how quickly we as a society make judgments about food safety and other critical issues. The viral campaign against pink slime was won not on facts, but by playing on people's emotions and their disconnect from how food is made today.  
Often lost in this debate is that pink slime hasn't been proven to be a health problem. Instead, the main issue seems to be its "ick factor" -- something it has in common with a lot of other foods (hot dogs, bratwurst, bologna) whose origins would likely repel people bothering to look.
On one hand, the Star Tribune is right. Not a single food-borne illness has been specifically attributed to the invisibly ubiquitous filler. Nonetheless, consumers have spoken loudly and clearly - they don't want it. It's gross, it doesn't matter if it's safe. Recasting this is as a food safety issue is an attempt to avoid confronting the painful reality that consumers are rejecting the product itself.

But the line about "playing on people's emotions" is completely tone deaf. People are emotional about food. While the industry and their allies would like to deny it, the emotional reaction of consumers is the crucial issue.

The effectiveness of this viral campaign is due to three components:

1) A name: The label "pink slime" has been undeniably effective. The beef industry's "lean finely textured beef" is an term of Orwellian genius, one of many sanitized names for industrial food products and processes. The succint and visceral renaming is one key element to the success of this campaign.
The "pink slime" here is actually chicken. Yummy!

2) An image: There have been a lot of damning images about industrial food. Videos of downer cattle being dragged to slaughter and workers stomping on live chickens have been worrisome enough for the industry that they've sought ag gag and food defamation laws to prevent damning video. In this case, it's the image of the finished product ("soft serve meat") that's been the most damning. One mislabeled image that has bounced around the internet is actually mechanically separated chicken, but that's cold comfort for the beef industry.

3) Ammonia: The revelation that this product is treated with ammonia to kill bacteria has been a big part of the emotional reaction. In fact, the reason this product is "safe" is because of the ammonia gas. But people generally don't like to eat things treated with household cleaning products. (Note: this explains many people's negative reaction to lutefisk.)

Slogan of the year: "Dude, it's beef!"
The beef industry's response has focused on the first factor, blaming a catchy label for their industry's woes. But their March 29th plant tour and press conference showed the limits of the imagination of their flacks and their paid-for political allies. Afterward, responding to a critical question from a reporter, exasperated Iowa Governor Terry Branstad barked, "it's beef, but it's leaner beef, which is better for you. You don't get it!"

No, Governor Branstad, you don't get it. Showing off the "pristine" and "shiny" factory that processes and treats the trimmings just reinforces your public relations problem.

It's not about safety, it's about industrialization. Consumers want an emotional connection to their food. They want to know where it came from, who raised it, and not be shocked by the answers to these questions. The Star Tribune is right, consumers are disconnected from how food is made today. But that is the result of the food industry's strategy of keeping consumers in the dark. Now the chickens have come home to roost.

Whether it's labeling milk from cows dosed with rBST/rBGH, labeling irradiated food, or pink slime, consumers have repeatedly demonstrated they want information about their food. And they don't appreciate the industry and their political friends telling them to sit down, shut up and eat their burger quietly.

Follow me on Twitter @aaronklemz

(Images: top: courtesy of Ken Avidor, middle: unknown, it's been bouncing all over the internet, lower: screenshot from the linked ABC news video.) 

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