In a surreal press conference yesterday, Beef Products Inc. took its best shot at making up for its silence during weeks of public lashing over what has been dubbed "pink slime," an additive in ground beef made through a high-tech process that BPI invented. (See my previous posts here and here.) The event came in the wake of major grocery chains announcing they would stop selling beef containing the filler.
But while I was expecting a slick corporate PR presentation, instead all we got was a pathetic display of politicians out of touch. One by one, the governors of the three states that are home to BPI plants spoke of the media's "smear campaign" and (predictably) the potential job losses in their respective states.
Also on hand was Elizabeth Hagen, head of food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who looked like she really didn't want to be there. But she too defended the product for its safety and inclusion in the federal school lunch program. (It was concern over schoolchildren eating the product that set off the initial firestorm in The Daily just weeks ago, leading to a popular petition on Change.org directed at USDA.)
How powerful must the meat industry be to cause three state governors and a federal official to rearrange their schedules just to participate in this dog and pony show? Each politician painted BPI as the helpless victim of baseless attacks, as Texas Governor Rick Perry said sadly, "through no fault of their own." I lost track of how many times "family business" was mentioned. (All this means is the company is not publicly held.) But the entire meat lobby has been on the defensive and was likely behind the scenes yesterday. As Food Safety News reporter Helena Bottemiller noted in her excellent article describing the event:
The governors largely echoed the message put out by the American Meat Institute just before the event. In a press release, AMI urged the media to stop using the term "pink slime."
The theme of the messaging was that the filler is a safe, nutritious product and the blame for the negative publicity lies with the media for causing "hysteria." (See Bettina Siegel's excellent post today questioning the safety spin.) Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who was the most emotional of the three state leaders (you almost got the feeling BPI was his company) even tried to rope the first lady's Let's Move program into his plea for sanity. You see, she wants kids to eat healthier, and BPI helps make beef leaner.
What? The collective cluelessness of the speakers was stunning.
Blaming the media for exposing this questionable process to the light of day is a textbook corporate move known as shooting the messenger. When you'd rather not answer the hard questions (none were even allowed during the plant tour preceding the press conference) just deflect attention by placing blame elsewhere. Classic misdirect.
And to counter the negative imagery of "pink slime," which is now branded into America's collective conscience, Big Meat has come up with a catchy, down-home, slogan: "Dude, it's beef," complete with t-shirts sporting the BPI logo. It's an insult to our intelligence to insist this cheap filler is identical to ground beef, but that's the tale that must be spun. The message is, just shut up and eat your hamburgers.
BPI's public relations train, while delayed, has finally left the station. Yesterday's plant tour and shoring up of political support is part of a string of broader meat industry's attempts to rehabilitate BPI's maligned reputation. Step 1, hire PR experts and crisis management firm. Step 2, call in your political favors. Step 3, give a tour of your squeaky clean plant. Step 4, hold a press conference where the theme is jobs and other scare tactics. Step 5, blame the media. Stay tuned for more fear mongering, blame shifting (lawsuits?) and calls for restoration of calm. The governors are even contacting grocery chains to get them to reconsider selling the product; I wonder what sort of political deals are being cut there?
The only moment of sanity came when reporter Jim Avila of ABC News (who has stayed with this story from the beginning -- watch his report here) tried to raise the obvious conflict of interest on display. He asked Governor Branstad, did his support for BPI have anything to do with the $150,000 he received in campaign donations from the company? The governor responded vehemently, insulted by the very notion that money is a motivator in politics:
None whatsoever! Let me tell you this, I will always fight for my constituents and I will always fight for what's right, and I will never be intimidated by anybody in the press who tries to make those accusations.
It was a pretty stupid answer as his anger only made the challenge more salient.
The emotional tone of the event indicates what's at stake: the fear that as more Americans learn the ugly truth about how their food is produced, other companies like BPI might have to defend their indefensible business practices. Instead of accepting responsibility for hiding the fact that this filler is added to the meat supply and offering up the transparency and choice that people are demanding, industry's response is to shoot the messenger and engage in high-profile damage control.
I just have one question for BPI: were the checks to each politician dispensed before or after the event?