This past week, the media woke up to the shocking reality that our meat supply is in fact industrialized. Long gone are the days of your friendly local butcher grinding meat for your kids' hamburgers. Taking its place is a corporate behemoth you probably never heard of called Beef Products Inc.
BPI now finds itself on the receiving end of consumer outrage over its ammonia-treated ground beef filler a former USDA official coined "pink slime." Thus far, a petition aimed at getting current USDA officials to stop using the scary stuff in school lunches has garnered more than 200,000 signatures.
All the hullaballoo reminded me of a dramatic talk I witnessed about a year ago on this very topic. Last February, I spoke at a conference organized by the Government Accountability Project's Food Integrity Campaign called "Employee Rights and the Food Safety Modernization Act" in Washington, D.C. The event's focus was the little-known, but critical aspects of the newly-enacted food safety law that would give whistleblowers added protection.
The show-stopping presentation came from Kit Foshee, a whistleblower fired by Beef Products Inc., the very same company now in the news for pink slime.
So I went back to watch his presentation again, which the conference organizers were kind enough to make available. (But only after Foshee's attorneys gave their approval -- it will soon become apparent why that huddle was needed.)
What made Foshee's talk so remarkable was its content -- he spoke in great detail about BPI's ammoniated beef process -- but also his bravery at confronting his former employers, who just happened to be in the room.
A few minutes into his talk, as Foshee was pointing out the absurdity of BPI's food safety awards on their website, he dramatically turned to his left to the BPI attorneys and asked if they were there to protect whistleblowers and to support the Food Safety Modernization Act, like the rest of us were?
I stopped taking notes and looked over, as everyone else in the room did. I can't recall ever being at a conference hearing a whistleblower speak, let alone one that was confronting the company that fired him. The tension in the room was palpable but Foshee plowed ahead, with some nervousness in his voice.
He answered for the BPI reps, who weren't interested in dialogue:
No, I am going to tell you right now, they're not here to protect whistleblowers. This is about me. They're here with their tape recorder because they are going to find a way to shut me up. They've got sealed documents, that if I say anything about, they're going to persecute me. So we're going to stick with the publicly available information, from their website, to stay safe.
(Foshee was referring to sealed court documents that resulted from his wrongful termination lawsuit against BPI.)
He described the adding of ammonia as "Mr. Clean." He asked if people would buy hamburgers if they knew BPI used ammonia "to clean it up," and spoke of the awful smell of the filler material. But "you don't know that," he said, and "you should be able to make a choice."
The main way BPI and the meat industry has defended using ammonia (see this silly website just up -- http://pinkslimeisamyth.com) is by claiming the safety benefits in reducing bacteria. This, by the way, was soundly disputed back in 2009 in an award-winning expose by the New York Times.
Foshee (who worked as BPI's Corporate Quality Assurance Manager for ten years) -- disputed the company's safety claims in great detail. He called claims of reduced levels of the deadly strain of E. coli 0157:H7 "totally misleading."
He said BPI would manipulate test results in various ways, including raising pH levels and not using the most effective testing methods available for detection. He called BPI's claims that its testing was the best in the industry "a farce" and that "all they wanted was a test to give a negative result" and move on.
He added, directing his remarks to the BPI attorneys in the audience, "you want to promote that you're a safe company to further your sales" but (pointing to their webpage) "this is false advertising."
He noted that BPI is actually a detriment to food safety because many companies eliminated their own testing, relying instead on BPI's claims of safety. "I don't blame companies for believing it, because what idiot would claim that?"
In another dramatic moment, he challenged the BPI reps by saying "You want to sue me? Sue me, but quote your own studies correctly. It's on your website. Quit trying to mislead consumers to thinking that if they buy from a company's that uses BPI products in its ground beef, it's safer -- that's absolutely false."
In keeping with the theme of the conference, he explained why we need to protect whistleblowers: "because companies falsify data. This is still happening. This is real. This is a company is still falsely advertising right now. Their product is in all the ground beef that you're eating every day."
He also explained how painful it was to get fired. He divorced because of the toll the experience took on his marriage. "You try to explain to your spouse why you're giving up $30,000 bonuses." He had made over $100,000, but no more.
He finished with a challenge directed at the BPI attorneys in the room:
I wonder if there's something in those sealed documents that they don't want to know about, that I can't talk about right now. I challenge BPI: why don't you come here to promote whistleblowers and instead of to persecute me? Let's open up these documents and see who's lying? Let's get this all out into the open. Why don't you quit harassing me?
Why indeed. What's in those documents? What is BPI trying to hide?
According to Amanda Hitt, director of the Food Integrity Campaign, within hours of Foshee's talk, BPI removed entire sections of its website. She also disputes BPI's claims of food safety and says the goal was to offer up cheap filler for hamburgers: "This product was never about safety, it's about economics."
Meantime, pink slime is just one of many problems with industrialized meat, so let's not lose sight of that bigger picture. What to do about it? Demand labeling, buy organic, or just don't eat ground beef.
Read more about Foshee and the Government Accountability Project's Food Integrity Campaign. Thanks to brave whistleblowers like Kit Foshee for speaking out and let's hope the media pays more than just passing attention to these critical issues.