May 7, 2012
Pink Slime, Early Death, Mad Cow Disease — Beef Industry Struggling Through String Of Image Crises, Spurred By Social Media: Because Of Splintered Interests and Locations, Industry Lacks a "United Front" To Mount a Solid PR Defense
America's beef industry has been battered by a string of crises this spring, resulting in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs — all within the span of a few weeks. Luckily the most potentially damaging of the disasters turned out to be, so far, extremely limited in scope — and there are signs that the industry, despite stumbling in some of its public response, has learned to better handle such matters. In March, a Harvard study was released which determined that eating beef could contribute to premature death. But it was the scandal over "pink slime" that was much more damaging — although the treated ground beef known as lean, finely textured beef, or LFTB, has been around for decades, the industry was caught off guard when worries about the product suddenly erupted on social media. And before companies could mount a strong defense, graphic images of pulverized meat and stories focusing on the ammonium hydroxide treatment spread around the world on social media. Then there was the Mad Cow episode in April that, although quickly diffused, brought back disturbing memories of more widespread recent outbreaks for consumers. There are strategies the industry could have taken to offset the damage — beef historian and author Maureen Ogle believes the industry should have responded by running polished advertisements featuring ranchers touting their American heritage, as well as billboards proclaiming the safety of products and executives should have been sent to major talk shows, she said, the LA Times reports. Instead, because "the beef industry is a collection of not-very-well-connected sub-industries," Ogle said, there were some news releases and some promises of better labeling but not much of a united front. "They did exactly what they always do, which is really not much of anything," she said. "Frankly, they're going to get killed from now on because of social media. It can do more damage in a day than old media used to be able to do in a month," she added, the Times reports.
As a result of the crisis string, school cafeterias, food chains and supermarkets quickly disavowed the ground beef product. Some meat companies went bankrupt or suspended production. A study from two Iowa State University economics professors found that the pink slime controversy probably would affect more than 2,000 jobs in the industry and beyond. In March, ground beef sales slipped to 37.7 million pounds, the smallest amount in a decade and an 11% slide from the previous month, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the LA Times reports.
"The beef industry and its associations are finally catching up with the times, trying to do their best to reach out to consumers by using new tools," said Mike Smith, special projects manager at Harris Ranch Beef Co., a company in Selma, Calif. "The outreach is there, it's growing, and we're hoping that it'll be more and more effective as we move forward," he added, report Times writers Tiffany Hsu and Ricardo Lopez.
Attempting to quash the episodes, the California Beef Council got its views out through social media and other online tools. Its home page declares, "Join the 'I [heart] Beef' discussion on Facebook, follow the California Beef Council on Twitter, watch our beef industry videos on YouTube, and view our pictures on Flickr," it read, the article reports.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. had established its BSEInfo.org site to gets its views on the disease out to the public, and it encouraged its Twitter followers to "push factual information out to the public." "Our strategy has and always will be to deal with sound science on these issues," said the association's communications chief, Daren Williams, the Times reports. "That's the bottom line. But we've adjusted our strategy accordingly to adapt to whatever latest communications vehicle helps us get accurate information to consumers the quickest."
The next crisis might be brewing already — last week, California state Sen. Ted W. Lieu (D-Torrance) sent a letter to the USDA calling for an investigation over a binding agent called transglutaminase, or "meat glue," that helps patch pieces of meat together. So far, beef industry representatives said they haven't heard much outcry on the topic. "Controversies have been distorted and blown out of proportion," Ogle said. But "the meat industry," she told the Times, "needs to understand that this is the new normal."