Pink Slime Has Been Public Relations Debacle

4/5/2012 6:10 AM
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When it comes to lean, finely textured beef (LFTB) otherwise known as pink slime, there are some big lessons in what not to do when tackling public controversies. Many beef bloggers are defending the use of the product. However, the public is not buying it. The beef industry, beef producers and USDA have been unable to convince consumers that the product is safe.

Unfortunately, BPI, a producer of this lean beef product, never got ahead of the issue, opting for silence or limited, delayed responses. Against the power of social media, silence is deadly.

When the story broke in early March with a former USDA food inspector criticizing the use of the product in ground beef, BPI opted to remain silent for the first couple of days. It did not even provide photos or video of the process to the media when asked. The silence left the door wide open to the idea that they had something to hide.

Within a day of the story breaking, farmers who direct-market their beef said their customers were asking if they used pink slime in their beef.

It was several days later that BPI released photos. And it was only after an avalanche of its customers decided to pull lean, finely textured beef from their products, forcing the shutdown of several of its plants, that BPI, assisted by the USDA and several governors, organized a media plant tour and press conference.

When I heard about that event, my first thought was, "What took them so long?" When Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad showed his frustration with the reporters at the conference, that was the footage news stations ran with. So the goal of the event -- to educate the public on the safety of the product -- was lost.

Crisis communications management is not easy. However, when looking at past cases, the companies that overcame adversity were proactive, racing to get ahead of the issue, build consumer confidence and demonstrate the message they were preaching. They did not sit back and hope the issue would go away.

For everyone in the food processing chain, there is a lesson in the pink slime debate. First, when an issue takes hold, saying nothing can have catastrophic results. Right now, BPI has several plants idled, and another company has filed for bankruptcy. Second, although one cannot predict how big an issue will become, doing nothing means opponents will have the final say.

This week, USDA approved a voluntary labeling program to indicate whether lean, finely textured beef is included in the product. Many beef companies have signed onto the idea.

Maybe pink slime will fade away, but it will probably be just in time for the next food debate to hit.

-- Charlene Shupp Espenshade, Special Sections Editor

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