Beef industry fights 'pink slime' claims

WASHINGTON: The US beef industry is fighting back against claims that "pink slime" oozes through its products.

WASHINGTON: The US beef industry is fighting back against claims that “pink slime” oozes through its products.

Earlier this month, ABC News ran a report that finely textured beef, now commonly called “pink slime,” could be found in 70% of ground beef sold in US supermarkets. Critics have claimed the US Department of Agriculture has allowed it to go unlabeled over the objection of some of its own scientists.

Beef Products Inc., a manufacturer of boneless lean beef, has temporarily shut down three of its four production facilities and sent home 650 workers at facilities in Waterloo, IA; Amarillo, TX; and Garden City, KA. Those jobs could be eliminated if public sentiment doesn't change, the company has said.

Beef Products Inc. is performing its own crisis communications response. The company, which PRWeek has learned is working with Ketchum, placed an op-ed-style ad in The Wall Street Journal and launched the BeefIsBeef.com website that aims to dispel rumors about finely textured beef. The company also plans to allow a group of governors to tour its remaining open plant with camera crews. It will also hold a press conference after the walkthrough.

Neither Beef Products Inc. nor Ketchum returned requests seeking comment.

Trade groups the American Meat Institute and the National Meat Association have aggressively reached out to trade, local, and national media outlets offering interviews, fact sheets, and press releases about beef products. Neither group has hired a PR firm to handle the crisis, said both Eric Mittenthal, VP of public affairs at the American Meat Association, and Jeremy Russell, director of communications and government relations at the National Meat Association.

The American Meat Institute has also launched an aggressive social media campaign. The organization has distributed videos on Facebook that detail how the meat product is made and has actively reached out to reporters through social networking websites to correct erroneous information in their stories.

However, Chuck Jolley, president of Jolley & Associates, a marketing and PR firm that concentrates on the food industry, criticized part of Beef Products Inc.'s  strategy. He wondered why the company would place an ad in The Wall Street Journal instead of a publication like USA Today, which has a broader demographic.

The Wall Street Journal is a publication aimed at businesspeople, and those aren't the decision makers involved in this issue,” he said. “It's moms, dads, and people who are concerned about their diets and well-being.”

Mittenthal criticized media coverage of the issue. For weeks, the media ran images of mechanically separated chicken when referring to finely textured beef, he said.

“Too many journalists took information ABC News put out on 'pink slime' and ran with it without doing their own fact checking,” Mittenthal said. “All you have to do is look at how many ran the picture…without even confirming if that was the right picture. If they can't even get a picture right, you have to wonder about some of their facts.”

Both Mittenthal and Russell criticized ABC News and questioned if it has truly sought to tell balanced stories.

Jeff Schneider, SVP at ABC News, responded that “our reputation is scrupulous, accurate, and fair.” He criticized both trade organizations.

“They've had very little to say; they repeat the same phrases over and over again and haven't really engaged with the questions we've had,” Schneider said. 

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