‘Get it out of the media as soon as possible’
‘Pink slime’ controversy this year presented a headache to Big Beef and its allies.
After consumer disgust over a hamburger additive dubbed “pink slime” went viral this summer, Big Beef circled the wagons and called in the cavalry.
They summoned friendly politicians, asking them to defend a product made by Beef Products Inc. and others that had been quietly added to hamburger for decades without consumers’ knowledge.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, one of several Midwestern governors whose states lost jobs when Beef Products plants shut down, agreed to attend a press conference at the company’s Nebraska plant.
But the bad press was so relentless that at least one beef industry insider wanted to call the whole thing off in the hope of limiting further damage to Big Beef’s reputation, according to internal emails obtained by The Kansas City Star through the Kansas open records law.
“I now believe that the best thing to do with this issue is to get it out of the media as soon as possible, even if the proponents of the story are our friends,” Ross Wilson, president and CEO of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, said in the email.
Neither Wilson nor BPI responded to numerous requests from the newspaper to discuss the email, but Wilson’s plea was ultimately ignored, and the press conference went on as scheduled.
And even though Texas Gov. Rick Perry insisted “Dude, it’s beef!” it didn’t do much to slow the bad press.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” Janet Riley, senior vice president of public affairs at the American Meat Institute, told shell-shocked beef officials at a meeting in Dallas earlier this year.
The pink slime storm hit at a challenging time for Big Beef: a persistent drought, sky-high corn prices, shrinking demand, thin profit margins and the smallest cattle herds in 60 years.
As it turns out, the beef industry may have had a good point in complaining that its product got a bad rap.
Lean finely textured beef, as the industry calls it, is in fact beef. Adding it to ground beef does produce leaner and cheaper hamburger.
But what consumers didn’t hear much about in all of Big Beef’s protests is that it also makes the industry millions of dollars.
It is extruded from hunks of fat and meat cut from larger pieces of beef, allowing packers to harvest every last morsel of edible tissue from a cow’s carcass. The so-called trim used to be processed into lower-value products, such as pet food.
In the end, said Ron Plain, an economist at the University of Missouri in Columbia, the controversy cost packers $500 million.