The campaign waged upon Beef Products Inc. this spring over the use of lean finely textured beef may be done. But the war against meat producers is anything but finished, said one BPI official.
“The beef industry is an easy target,” warned Mike Rucks, BPI’s director of technical services, to a room full of cattle producers in Twin Falls, Idaho. “It seems that everybody loves a gory, dirty, unappealing meat story in the news.”
Especially when that story is filled with inaccuracies, Rucks explained. In addressing members of the Idaho Cattle Association on June 20 about LFTB’s impact on the cattle industry, Rucks preached how the lessons of “pink slime” prove that beef producers cannot sit idle when any attacks are made on the entire beef brand.
“We as an industry are going to have to learn when people are saying negative things about our label, we have to defend it because nobody is going to defend it as well as we do.”
Rucks gave an extensive history of BPI and its use of trimmings in beef. He further recalled how the “pink slime” media coverage morphed into a controversy that brought the company to its knees and inflicted what he estimated as $1 billion of beef industry losses.
Three of BPI’s Midwest plants are now closed with over 800 employees laid off, a stunning turnaround for a company that was one of the industry’s most innovative processors in lean beef production, with a lengthy resume in food safety awards.
“I can tell you it’s not real easy picking up the phone or looking an employee in the eye that’s worked 22 years, and tell them ‘we don’t have a job.’ That’s tough,” Rucks said.
BPI’s rise in the ‘80s was fueled by consumers’ demand for leaner ground beef. Founder Eldon Roth developed a harvesting method to separate lean beef from fat using a heated spinning cycle. To kill the heat and eliminate potential of e. coli, a small amount of ammonium hydroxide gas was applied to the meat. This ammonium process is also used in several foods and fully approved by USDA.
The process extracted beef trim that was between 90 to 95 percent lean, and could be added to fatter 50/50 mixes for leaner grinds in grocery stores and restaurants. Rucks said the process captured 21 pounds of lean beef per head. At its peak in 2010, the company produced 10.5 million pounds of 95 percent lean beef.
“Take that number and you can multiply it, and that represents 30 million pounds of beef trimmings that were processed. Now that’s been taken off the market entirely in the beef complex.”
Origins of a shutdown
Grasping how it all unraveled is still a mystery to Rucks and BPI officials, considering the vast lengths they went to in beef safety measures. The company also had an open door policy to consumer groups explaining the production methods.
That open door was extended to the producers of Food Inc., the 2008 documentary that slammed corporate food production and featured a segment on BPI’s use of LFTB, and included some inaccurate portrayals with the use of ammonium. A year later The New York Times reported on BPI’s safety record and unearthed public records from USDA with an inspector’s memo that dubbed LFTB “pink slime.”
It was at that stage, Rucks recalled, that the issue went quiet in mainstream media, but it was hardly dead.
“After the Food Inc. expose we should have realized it was a bigger issue,” Rucks said. “Our whole customer base was thinking like it would calm down and move away and move on. Well, it did in mainstream media, but if we would have been paying attention in social media, we would have realized it wasn’t calming down, it was moving to a different platform of conversation.”
Then came the eruption of 2012.
Sparked by a March 2012 blogger’s attempt to get LFTB off school lunch menus, ABC News hit the story three straight nights in March 2012. And with Diane Sawyer repeating the words “pink slime” in each newscast, the blogosphere exploded with rapid reactions from consumers and retailers.
Rucks said the coverage was worsened with reports inaccurately calling LFTB floor scraps, dog food, intestines, bones and filler.
When mainstream TV media would not go to BPI for information, BPI and allied groups tried to provide extension and meat science industry sources – all to no avail. Consultants in the industry were ignored.
“Any of them that were in favor of LFTB were discredited by the reporter.”
An unprepared response
Within a few weeks, major grocery chains such as Safeway, Kroger and Supervalu were dropping LFTB from their meat aisle. Rucks said during this time he was tasked with trying to tell producers “this wasn’t just limited to BPI, it was coming home to the ranch. If you were in the beef business it would affect you somehow.”
But those warnings fell on deaf ears.
“Everybody was spending an inordinate amount of time trying to find out how it was going to individually impact them first, and we lost a lot of opportunity to combat this.”
Rucks said in hindsight, BPI had a strong backing with food safety consumer groups, but with other groups the agenda was different. When critics took their cause to social media, the entire industry was unprepared to battle back.
Rick Stott, executive vice president of business development for Agri Beef, echoed that sentiment. When customers came to his company to ask about “pink slime,” he said they told consumers it wasn’t in their product.
“That was the wrong answer,” Stott said. “The answer should have been, ‘That is a great product. It’s safe, it’s innovative, it’s a great lean product, and we would be proud to have it. But we have enough supply of our own lean meat that we don’t need it.’ That’s the right answer. Instead, we missed an opportunity.”
Lessons for the future
Ground beef prices are rising, Rucks said, in part from the decline of 50/50 mixes and the costs of importing lean beef. As for the assertion that it will take 1.5 million more cattle to replace LFTB, Rucks said the gap is even harder to fill.
“Steers and heifers don’t produce 90 percent ground beef. We’re going to have to slaughter another 1.5 million cows … and that’s a year after we’ve already taken a million and a half cows out of the nursery.”
Most importantly, he says cattle producers must actively recognize the powers working to end their industry, and have the means necessary to label beef production methods with any label imaginable.
“In my lifetime, I’ve never seen a company attacked like this company, who in actuality had done nothing wrong and had done all the things companies are told to do to be a good steward.”
That lesson has to resonate with producers, he said. If BPI can be taken down by flawed reporting, followed up by a social media campaign, any beef producer is just as vulnerable.
“There’s a lot bigger group than what we want to understand and know out there, that is not really in favor of animal protein. And they’re a lot better organized than you’d like to think that they are.”
Mike Rucks, director of technical services at Beef Products Inc., tells Idaho Cattle Association members his account of the media campaign that went after use of lean finely trimmed beef. Staff photo.