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A sentiment change one year after the slime

Progressive Cattleman Editor David Cooper Published on 24 April 2013

One year after the “pink slime” fiasco hit American headlines, not to mention the beef industry, a certain sea change has evolved among the chattering classes of media and the Internet.

The legal battle waged to defend Beef Products Inc. and its product – lean finely trimmed beef, or LFTB – against the blitzkrieg of negative press led by ABC News is far from over.

But as more facts emerge from the case, it’s obvious that the so-called reporting on LFTB was blatantly foul.

Now there’s growing recognition that BPI was never given a fair shake by sloppy reporting that brought it to a crash.

Much of it started when celebrity chef Jamie Oliver used a program on ABC to soak ground beef in cleaning-grade ammonia in order to make an egregious comparison to BPI’s process. Perhaps he should have soaked his network’s credibility in ammonia instead.

Since BPI filed its $1.2 billion lawsuit against ABC News for the 11 segments it did on LFTB last spring, even members of the fourth estate have done some collective soul searching.

Take this example from a Time magazine reporter in a recent blog:

“… After revisiting the episode through court documents and media accounts, and by speaking to numerous legal and food industry experts, I became sympathetic to BPI’s story. …(I)ts ethical case is persuasive.

In short, the company and its product – which has never been found to be unsafe, unhealthy or to have caused food-borne illnesses – were victims of an insidious viral Internet meme that wedged them between two powerful and opposing forces: the need to feed millions cheaply and the growing desire of American consumers to know exactly what they’re eating.”

Libel cases face a difficult road in the U.S. courts, and rightfully so, in order to protect the freedom of press in an open society that warrants debate and disclosure.

But those same laws require that news organizations don’t cross boundaries into reckless disregard for truth and accuracy.

By using the term “pink slime” 137 times in its four weeks of coverage, ABC News hammered viewers with imagery that ignored those boundaries.

It ignored scientific sources defending the safety of lean beef trimmings. The lead reporter used social media to state that LFTB is not real meat.

And the network, as noted in a Reuters report, now says its use of “pink slime” is a type of “rhetorical hyperbole” not uncommon from a critic’s rhetorical right to describe bad cuisine.

But that’s a feckless defense. A commentary review by a food critic is one thing; an objective news investigation that calls a product a slanderous name 137 times is another.

If that’s credible reporting, then ABC has lost its ethical compass.

There are still lessons to be learned from the pink slime drama, especially since food safety and quality are paramount to today’s consumer.

Producers in the food industry must aggressively fight myths about beef production as they would any disease, parasite or economic threat. The more silent you remain, the more likely other sources will define your product for you.  end mark


David Cooper
Progressive Cattleman magazine