Beef Industry Bruised by 'Pink Slime' Battle

Product May Be Safe and Economical, But Opponents Have Upper Hand in PR Contest

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The phrase "lean, finely textured beef" hardly rolls off the tongue but is elegant. "Pink slime," on the other hand, is catchy but sounds gross and even frightening -- especially if it's in your hamburger.

This is the branding problem the beef industry faces as it mounts a counteroffensive to criticism over a filler that it also calls "lean beef trimmings," in addition to the aforementioned lean, finely textured beef. It's made from meat scraps that are heated to remove fat and treated with food-grade ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria. In recent days, the industry and a leading producer have fought back against an outcry over the product, and sought to discredit critical media coverage with the aid of several governors who have spoken up in support.

But is the PR push too little too late?

Ad Age talked to communications, branding and food experts to find out. The consensus is that opponents of the product (which include celebrity chef Jamie Oliver) won round one, leaving the industry scrambling to get control of the message.

"From a PR/advertising standpoint, this is the perfect storm: a great name -- pink slime -- the fact that it's in our school lunches [and] the fact that it's got ammonia," said Phil Lempert, a food-industry analyst who runs supermarketguru.com. "It's really a triple play. From a PR standpoint, very little can be done."

Most of all, the case is yet another example of how rapidly bad news travels online, rendering corporations almost powerless.

The tipping point came March 7 when "ABC World News with Diane Sawyer" broadcast a damning segment. Correspondent Jim Avila described it as "beef trimmings that were once used only in dog food and cooking oil now sprayed with ammonia to make them safe to eat, and then added to most ground beef as a cheaper filler."

Consumer reaction was swift and spread virally. Bettina Elias Siegel, a Texas mom, blogger and former advertising lawyer, started an online petition, asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to remove the product from school food. Ms. Siegel collected more than 200,000 signatures in nine days. The USDA relented, saying it would give schools the option of purchasing beef with or without the filler. Meantime, big supermarket chains, including Kroger and Safeway, announced that they would no longer sell ground beef with the filler.

ABC's source was former USDA scientist-turned-whistleblower Gerald Zirnstein, who coined the phrase "pink slime" in a 2002 email to colleagues in which he raised red flags about the product, according to a 2009 report in The New York Times. But pink slime did not go mainstream until April 2011, when Mr. Oliver made it a topic on his "Food Revolution" TV show. In a dramatic example, he rinsed beef scraps with ammonia, as children and parents grimaced.

Opponents gained an unlikely ally when McDonald's later revealed that it had discontinued the use of ammonia-treated beef in hamburgers as of the beginning of 2011. Burger King and Taco Bell also no longer use it, according to published reports. Wendy's ran a full-page ad in newspapers Friday noting that it's never used it and never will.

Add it up, and there are a multitude of forces lining up against a product that is reportedly used in up to 70% of the ground beef sold in stores. 

"When you have large brands like McDonald's and all of these folks pulling out it becomes a movement, and that becomes very problematic," said Adam Mendelsohn, a partner with Mercury, a PR firm whose practices include crisis management. The beef industry has "to figure out a way to stop other large brands from jumping in and saying they are no longer going to provide this."

The leading producer of the filler is Beef Products Inc., which began making it in the early 1990s. Without it, beef suppliers would have to slaughter an additional 1.5 million cattle a year to make up the difference, according to the industry. Tyson Foods has already forecast a 2% to 3% reduction in the beef supply, saying the situation "may result in higher consumer prices." 

Gary Martin, president of branding and naming consultancy Gary Martin Group, blamed BPI for letting opponents define their product.

"They left their branding flank open," Mr. Martin said. "They had an opportunity to describe this for the public in a nice way. They could have called it "Pro-leana' or something."

In response, BPI and the industry have taken a mostly defensive posture, seeking to discredit media reports while promoting the product as safe and nutritious. In a full-page ad that ran in The Wall Street Journal on March 23, BPI President-CEO Eldon Roth lashed out in a letter against the "campaign of lies and deceit" that has been joined by "entertainment media, tabloid journalists [and] so-called national news." He said his company's product has never been associated with a foodborne illness.

A website called beefisbeef.com seeks to repair the product's reputation, calling it "100% beef," and noting that "ammonium hydroxide is used in everyday cooking, from baking powder to cheese to chocolate."

Historian Maureen Ogle, who is writing a book on the beef industry, noted that processors have been using beef scraps as far back as the 1970s to control costs. "I'm all for food safety, but in this case the reaction is irrational. If [pink slime] were unsafe, we'd have learned that , oh, about 35 years ago," she wrote on her website. "This is meat. It's not "byproduct.' It's beef."

Several Midwestern governors have come to BPI's defense, including Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, who held a press conference with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

"The product is safe. There is no question about it," Mr. Vilsack told reporters.

Still, consumers might not be motivated by safety concerns but simply grossed out, said Linda Weinberg, a registered dietician and VP-social marketing and emergency risk communication at WPP's Ogilvy PR in Washington. That might be why the industry's safety messaging is falling flat, she said.

"People are saying, "I don't care if it's safe, it's icky,'" she said. "People kind of feel like you pulled the wool over their eyes," Ms. Weinberg added, as meat made with the filler was not labeled as such.

BPI did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association declined to speak about the industry's PR strategy. Ketchum had been handling some crisis communications for BPI. But because the agency also works with Wendy's -- which has taken a shot at BPI -- the shop said it was transitioning the work to another firm at Omnicom, a Ketchum spokesperson told Ad Age on Friday.

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