Americans enjoy the cheapest food supply in the world, spending the smallest share of their income on groceries of any country.
But as activist groups continue to pull back the curtain on the techniques that make this cheap food possible, Americans are raising their eyebrows and voicing their concerns to surprisingly powerful effect.
This week, Beef Products Inc. announced the temporary shutdown of three of its four plants that produce an inexpensive, chemically treated recovered beef product the government calls “lean finely textured beef” but opponents have dubbed”pink slime.”The company’s decision came after McDonald’s, the National School Lunch Program,Kroger Co.,Safeway Inc.and others made public their reduction or elimination of the product from their outlets in recent weeks.
While contamination problems had been associated with the product as late as 2009 — when theU.S. Department of Agriculturewas exempting it from routine safety tests — industry experts say new government and company testing protocols have made it a safe and incredibly efficient product for the food industry, which commonly adds it to ground beef.
But public outcry from consumers, parents and school district officials, triggered by YouTube videos and online petitions, drove industry and government to respond. It didn’t hurt that the nickname attached to the product was so indelibly disgusting.
The responses by corporations and government are just the latest examples of consumer pressure leading to changes in standard practices in the food industry, such as housing hens and pregnant sows in cramped cages and feeding antibiotics to livestock.
“It was incredible,” said Brianna Cayo Cotter, communications director of Change.org, a website that hosted a petition by Texas mom Bettina Siegel urging the USDA to stop buying ammonia-treated beef for school lunches. “In 10 days she made the USDA, the meat industry and major retailers all back away from it. Now the demand for pink slime has dropped so dramatically that some of the factories are starting to shut down.”
Not everyone views such popular uprisings as a positive development.
“Something is seriously out of kilter in our communications environment when safe food products and proven technologies can be torpedoed by sensationalist, misleading, yet entertaining social media campaigns,” said David B. Schmidt, president and CEO of the International Food Information Council. “We should all take several steps back and remember the critical thinking skills we were taught in school.”
A spokesman for the USDA, which runs the school lunch program, said lean finely textured beef is still beef, though it is separated from fat through heat and centrifuge and treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria.
But because the agency also has to respond to consumer demand, the department announced that it would offer districts across the country alternatives to the product next year. The department acknowledged that it heard from school districts and was aware of the Change.org petition.
“Transparency is a reality of today, with more people paying close attention to what’s in their food and especially (what’s) being served in schools,” said USDA spokesman Mike Jarvis. “We’ve said from the beginning: We think it’s a safe product, but people have preferences and some schools didn’t want it.”
The term “pink slime” came from a 2002 internal email between two USDA scientists who were concerned at the time about its safety and lack of labeling. The emails surfaced when The New York Times, reporting on the safety of ground beef in 2009, obtained them under the Freedom of Information Act.
At the time, the USDA said it would start testing BPI’s product for pathogens and would conduct a review of the company’s operations. The company also said it would adjust ammonia levels in the product.
The topic remained dormant until April 2011, when celebrity chef Jamie Oliver made pink slime a topic on his “Food Revolution” TV show. It appeared again in January when McDonald’s acknowledged that it had removed the product from its American outlets, and it spiked again early this month when Siegel launched her petition.
Attorney Bill Marler, who publishes Food Safety News online and represents plaintiffs in food poisoning suits, said he also believed that BPI’s product was fairly safe. At the same time, he said, the company should have been more transparent about its processes rather than lobbying against labeling requirements.
“When you lobby not to label something, it just makes it look like you’ve got something to hide, which is ultimately a bad PR move,” Marler said. “If government or companies have something positive or negative to say, it behooves them to get out ahead of it. Otherwise they get swamped by whatever narrative gets out by a former USDA official, Jamie Oliver or a mom with a blog in Houston. And look at the consequences.
“It’s remarkable, but whether it’s a good or bad development really depends on the issue.”
Other food campaigns galvanized by social media include efforts to get Amazon.com to stop selling whale meat, to get Wal-Martto refuse genetically modified sweet corn, to stop McDonald’s from buying eggs from battery-caged chickens and to encourage the Food and Drug Administration to ban antibiotics in animal feed and reconsider its approval of genetically modified salmon.
In the past, food activists relied almost solely on citizen petitions to the FDA, though these were rarely as high profile or effective as the latest campaigns. The agency must address such petitions within 180 days, and the FDA says it does consider them.
“It’s tough to attribute changes in policy to citizen’s petitions directly,” said the FDA’s Siobhan DeLancey. “Frequently the subject of a (petition) is something we are already investigating or working on. We definitely want to hear from citizens about what they want from the FDA, and we balance that as well as we can with the regulatory authority we have.”
Gary Hirshberg, CEO of yogurt company Stonyfield Organic, is one of the organizers of Just Label It, a campaign that is urging the FDA to label genetically modified foods. Hirshberg said he used to wait to hear back from legislators on issues, but now they are calling him when they hear about constituents organizing around food policy issues.
“I can tell you the White House is watching,” he said of the Just Label It petition that has gathered more than 1 million supporters. “I’ve had meetings with folks there including the president and the first lady, and when I sit down, it’s clear they have been tracking when the numbers got to 400, 500 and 600,000. I’ve never seen any period like this before.”
While some are skeptical about the new power of social media over food policy, others view it as a grand success.
“It’s definitely a good thing, and it is harnessing this incredible energy and desire for social change, tapping into the current ethos of the Occupy movement,” said Naomi Starkman, who manages communications for a number of environmental and food policy campaigns. “When consumers can participate online, it gives them a tool to make a difference that they don’t feel they have other than their pocketbooks.”