Aug 1 2012

Putting Consumers Back in Their Place

After ‘pink slime’ victory, reminders that corporations do know best

Extra! August 2012: Shut Up and EatCorporate news media paid what looked like sympathetic attention to consumer activism that, within weeks, saw the ingredient known as “pink slime” removed from ground beef sold in major supermarkets and fast food chains and provided to public schoolchildren in their lunch.

Reporters seemed as compelled and repelled as many consumers by the realization that trimmings “made from cattle parts once considered too contaminated for human consumption” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 3/20/12) can now be found in some 70 percent of beef sold in the U.S.—that is, after “slow cooking, a trip through a centrifuge and an ammonia hydroxide spray to kill germs turn the once-inedible fat and connective tissue into a pink gelatin-like substance.”

There were references to “ammonia-treated slaughterhouse goo” (Houston Chronicle, 3/18/12) and “ordering from the embalming menu” (Washington Post, 2/2/12).

Then, too, the role of emerging media seems to fascinate the press, and this story was a “social media firestorm” (ABC, 6/6/12) or a “coup for social media” (Chicago Tribune, 4/26/12), having been driven in part by the efforts of a Texas blogger (

But a line from the Kansas City Star (3/15/12), that concern over the additive “registered the sort of quick and virulent response that seems to characterize a new media age,” hints at what became a prominent theme: that consumers might be powerful, but are also naive and suggestible, or perhaps plain stupid.

Before the “flash-fire controversy,” explained the Minneapolis Star Tribune (4/8/12), the treated trimmings had “long been safely added to hamburger sold in grocery stores and served to schoolchildren.” Then “celebrity chef Jamie Oliver dissed the meat,” critics “repeatedly dubbed it ‘pink slime’ on the Internet” and “hysteria ensued.”

Actually, the term “pink slime” was introduced to the public in a 2009 front-page New York Times report (12/31/09) that indicates why government approval of the additive ought itself to be interrogated, rather than presented as a trump card to consumer concern. The Times’ Michael Moss reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was so convinced of the success of the ammonia treating process in killing E. coli and salmonella that the company that introduced it, Beef Products, Inc., was exempted from routine testing. The processed beef was excluded from recalls “even when it was an ingredient in hamburgers found to be contaminated,” because it was assumed to be pathogen-free:

But government and industry records obtained by the New York Times show that in testing for the school lunch program, E. coli and salmonella pathogens have been found dozens of times in Beef Products meat, challenging claims by the company and the USDA about the effectiveness of the treatment.

Contrary to recent claims that “federal regulators never sounded safety concerns about it,” and “that’s why federal officials and the family-owned company that makes this product were slack-jawed when a public backlash erupted” (Washington Post, 4/22/12), the fact-driven Times article noted that “within the USDA the treated beef has been a source of friction for years.”

It was, after all, a USDA microbiologist, Gerald Zirnstein, who first used the term “pink slime” in a 2002 interoffice email, adding, “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”

Let Them Eat Slime: Jen SorensenBut in any event, glosses of anti-slime efforts as a health “scare” (Kansas City Star, 3/15/12), or of consumers as worried “despite claims that [the process] is harmless” (Christian Science Monitor, 3/27/12), misrepresent the nature of the concern. People weren’t saying they thought pink slime would kill them; they were just saying they didn’t want to eat it.

That simple idea seemed lost on much corporate media, for whom having qualms about a non-poison in your food is intellectually suspect, the kind of idea you’d only get from a “celebrity chef,” or the Internet. “The problem with consumer scares like this one is that they’re not necessarily based on data and facts but on instinct and rumor,” sniffed the Los Angeles Times (3/25/12). Experts were brought in to suggest that “we should all take several steps back and remember the critical thinking skills we were taught in school” (Chicago Tribune, 3/28/12).

There was a collective head shake that such irrational concerns had damaged an industry that was “caught off guard” (Chicago Tribune, 3/29/12) and forced “on the defensive” (St. Louis Post Dispatch, 5/11/12). The “controversy has claimed its first corporate victim,” the Christian Science Monitor (4/2/12) told readers when a processor sought bankruptcy, citing reduced demand; “Meat Company Gets Chewed Up in Uproar,” declared the Chicago Tribune (3/28/12).

‘‘The first casualties of the hamburger ingredient contemptuously dubbed ‘pink slime’ will likely not be anyone who eats it but rather the workers who make it,” scolded a New York Times Sunday Editorial Observer (5/13/12), evincing a compassion for America’s meatpackers rare for corporate media, but pitting consumers against workers in a time-honored way.

ABC (6/6/12), meanwhile, offered no counter to the lament of the American Meat Institute’s Janet Riley about the USDA’s decision to offer schools the option of (more expensive) unslimed beef: “These decisions unnecessarily place further pressure on school budgets that are already struggling to fund teacher salaries and the like.”

Besides blaming consumers for taking jobs from both meatpackers and schoolteachers, reporters didn’t hesitate to predict other probable consequences of the campaign, none of which included industry improvements or a societal conversation about why we think people should eat dog food. “What’s next in the world of ground beef? Higher prices, most likely,” said the Christian Science Monitor (4/2/12); the Star Tribune (4/8/12) explained that “beef will likely have to be imported from other countries with less reliable slaughter inspection processes.”

Thus the story was recast from one of consumers vs. business, in which people exert power against a secretive, self-interested industry, to one of science vs. opinion, in which people are irrational, ignorant and ultimately harmful, with industry their victim.

There was something particularly cynical in media’s takeaway on the pink slime story: the widely endorsed idea that it was all nothing more than PR. “Sometimes the terminology used in a debate is vivid enough to determine the outcome,” explained the Boston Globe (3/22/12), and story after story echoed: “Lean Beef or Pink Slime? It’s All in a Name” (USA Today, 4/2/12), “The Real Problem with ‘Pink Slime’? Marketing” (Dallas Morning News, 4/8/12), “By Any Other Name, ‘Slime’ Might Survive” (Chicago Tribune, 5/5/12) and so on.

“People, it seems, who for years gobbled down ‘lean finely textured beef’ sat upright when they saw ‘pink slime,’” scoffed a Washington Post piece (4/22/12) headed “‘Pink Slime,’ Formerly Known as Hamburger.”

It’s surely true that people respond to language, but this self-consciously savvy subcurrent of coverage carried a disturbing implication that maybe people don’t deserve to know the facts, since they’re prone to misunderstand and “misuse” information. It sounds like an argument not just against food labeling, but against reporting as well.

Journalists also appear to be letting themselves off the hook with the suggestion that public concern over beef processing is laughable or worse because there are so many other problems in the food system.

You have to figure reporters thought they were schooling activists by noting that “pink slime is not necessarily any more dangerous than many other industrial food practices” (L.A. Times, 3/25/12). “Defending pink slime isn’t the aim here,” contended the Times; it was simply concerned that consumers “might be ignorant of—or ignoring—more troubling aspects of industrial food production.”

Likewise, USA Today (4/17/12) professed “what’s unsatisfying about the episode is that so many other aspects of food production are crying out for change.” The problem? “Without yucky names to gin up public attention…the problems go begging for solutions that never come.”

A press corps worth its salt would see problems “crying out for change” as a spur to report on them, not as a rhetorical “gotcha” to belittle consumers—much less consumers whose primary call was for more information and transparency.

Look out for more media appearances by the ignorant, emotion-driven, Internet-swayed consumer in looming battles over, for example, the labeling of genetically modified food. It’s too useful a strawman to abandon, for elite journalists who like to pay lip service to “people power” from time to time, but at the end of the day are more invested in reassuring us that corporations know best.