Processed-meat fever came to a head over the weekend. It started with a full-page ad, which appeared on Friday in the Wall Street Journal (and is on display below), paid for by Beef Product Inc. The company branded itself a paragon of food safety and cited "pink slime" libel as a threat to 3000 jobs.
The ad was a direct response to a media blitz, started by food advocates including Jamie Oliver and amplified by news and social media outlets. A photo posted on the Internet depicting pink slime extruding into a cardboard box like strawberry soft-serve went viral, and suddenly grocery stores were declaring that their shelves would soon be "pink-slime" free.
The advertisement displayed two letters. One was from Nancy Donley, a concerned mother whose child had died from organ damage due to E. coli toxins, and the other from Eldon Roth, the President and C.E.O. of Beef Products Inc. Together they spin a tale intended to garner sympathy from prospective customers, but their arguments are full of holes.
Donely's letter paints, in frightening detail, the last days of her son's life. She says that processed meat and other foods have to be treated with ammonia and other "technologies" to rid those foods of deadly pathogens. BPI is the good guy, she says.
She ignores, however, that the industrialization of our food supply is exactly what's causing the increased prevalence of those pathogens that are making everyone sick. As cows are crowded into feed lots, they tend to get sick -- just like people do when you confine them in unsanitary refugee camps or slums or whatever. By the time the beef is slaughtered, processed, shipped somewhere else and processed again, bacteria has a lot of time to grow. BPI had to treat its product with ammonia, sort of like you do with your toilet, except (I hope) you don't eat from it. Meanwhile, alternative farming techniques -- the ones that used to be the norm before industrialization took over our food supply -- have proven safe without the use of factories and chemicals and antibiotics.
Donely also claims that the media attack on companies such as BPI will stymie innovations in food safety technology and strategy. Roth's contribution to the advertisement echos this sentiment, and claims that food-borne illnesses have never been associated with their lean beef product in over 30 years of business. But there's a problem with that, too, because BPI's products have been determined in many instances by the USDA to not be safe numerous times in the past.
The article in The New York Times that started this whole thing cited a USDA scientist's catchy reference to processed beef that looks like saltwater taffy. It pointed out that the USDA had found BPI products that tested positive for salmonella and the E. Coli bacteria that killed Donely's son. The agency had banned hamburger makers from using meat from BPI because of salmonella three times over three years, according to the article.
Just because outbreaks or illnesses don't get recorded at the Center for Disease Control doesn't mean that a supplier is necessarily safe. Had the resultant burgers from those bad batches made it through the chain, and not been cooked to the brink of desiccation, people would have gotten sick. In those instances, BPI wasn't leaning on their own technologies to prevent a food-borne illness outbreak. They were leaning on the USDA's safety net, as well as the promise that any chain desperate enough to use their product would cook those pathogens to death.
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The final argument in the ad plays the most cliched fiddle: that this media campaign against BPI threatens 3,000 jobs of hard-working Americans. That, the ad implies, should be enough to ignore the 23,152 cases of illness, 1,276 hospitalizations and 22 deaths that were compiled in 2008, the latest year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has finalized data. But if there were less pink slime, there would be an increased demand for more more real meat, which might require more ranchers and ranch hands and other jobs. Or, gasp, we might even eat a little less meat.
Yesterday, BPI officials announced the halting of operations at three of the company's four plants, and the temporary layoff of 650 of its employees as a direct response to the media attack against its products. The media blitz cited by BPI isn't a targeted campaign against a single small producer. It's the spear on an attack against food-industry norms that have gotten way out of line with how people are supposed to live and eat. The same efficiency processes that have made windows, record players, Coke bottles and plastic baggies as cheap as possible are squeezing every last bit of profitability from our food chain. It's making a lot of people sick, and even the slickest ad campaign can't make them better