That’s why federal officials and the family-owned company that makes this product were slack-jawed when a public backlash erupted last month against what the industry calls “lean finely textured beef.”
None of the usual suspects caused the uproar, even though a few had tried. Instead, the unlikely source was a Texas mom eager to improve school food. Early in March, from her kitchen in a leafy Houston neighborhood, Bettina Elias Siegel sounded off on her blog, The Lunch Tray. She urged readers to “put a stop to pink slime” in school lunches and hastily launched an online petition before taking off for the day’s errands.
Eight days later, the signatures topped 200,000.
“I think you all know that I didn’t have the slightest clue what I was about to unleash,” Siegel wrote on her blog.
People, it seems, who for years gobbled down “lean finely textured beef” sat upright when they saw “pink slime.”
The moniker went viral. The “yuck” factor repulsed consumers. Supermarket chains – including Safeway, Kroger and Food Lion – abandoned the product. Wendy’s took out newspaper ads assuring customers that it never has used the stuff. Even the plodding government bureaucracy leaped into action, granting schools the choice to stop using it in lunches next year. Systems big and small, including public schools in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, opted out.
The episode damaged the fortunes of Beef Products Inc., the producer in South Dakota, forcing it to suspend operations in three of its four plants, though it pledged to keep paying its workers for now. A meat processor in Pennsylvania, AFA Foods, filed for bankruptcy protection this month, citing reduced demand for lean beef as a factor. Meanwhile, ground beef sales in March hit a 10-year low for the month, just as the grilling season was about to take off.
The dramatic fallout signals yet again the power of social media to change the way political actors and businesses respond to public pressure, leaving them all vulnerable — for better or worse — to reputational slights. Some consumer groups watched the events unfold with a mix of admiration, jealousy and perhaps remorse.
“It’s substantively not the most critical health issue, yet it was framed in such a way that the public outcry actually changed food policy in a matter of weeks,” said Sarah Klein, a lawyer at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “If we could figure out the formula and apply it to serious public health issues, that would be amazing.”
The yuck factor
The phrase — pink slime — was born in a 2002 e-mail.