Beef industry struggles with PR crises

Pink slime. Early death. Mad cow.

Over the span of just a few weeks, the beef industry was hit by a string of crises this spring, resulting in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs.

But it could have been worse.

The industry, which had $79 billion in sales in the U.S. last year, was lucky that the most potentially damaging of the disasters turned out to be, so far, extremely limited in scope. And there are signs that the industry, despite stumbling in some of its public response, has learned to better handle such matters.

The latest series of problems began in March with a double hit. There was a Harvard study that determined that eating beef could contribute to premature death. But it was the scandal over “pink slime” that was much more damaging.


The ammonium hydroxide-treated ground beef product — formally known in the industry as lean, finely textured beef, or LFTB — has been around for decades. But when worries about the stuff suddenly erupted on social media, the industry was caught off guard.

Before companies could mount a strong defense, unappetizing images of pulverized meat and stories focusing on the ammonium hydroxide treatment spread around the world on Twitter and Facebook.

Beef historian and author Maureen Ogle said the industry should have responded by running polished advertisements featuring ranchers touting their American heritage. There should have been billboards proclaiming the safety of products and executives should have been sent to major talk shows, she said.

Instead, because “the beef industry is a collection of not-very-well-connected sub-industries,” Ogle said, there were some news releases and some promises of better labeling but not much of a united front.

“They did exactly what they always do, which is really not much of anything,” she said. “Frankly, they’re going to get killed from now on because of social media. It can do more damage in a day than old media used to be able to do in a month.”

School cafeterias, food chains and supermarkets quickly disavowed the ground beef product. Some meat companies went bankrupt or suspended production.

A study from two Iowa State University economics professors found that the pink slime controversy probably would affect more than 2,000 jobs in the industry and beyond.

In March, ground beef sales slipped to 37.7 million pounds, the smallest amount in a decade and an 11% slide from the previous month, according to theU.S. Department of Agriculture.

And as if the Harvard study and pink slime weren’t enough, April brought an even more frightening discovery: mad cow disease.

The brain-wasting illness, officially called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, infected nearly 24,000 cows during an epidemic in Britain in the early 1990s and also played a part in more than 150 human deaths there. North America dealt with several scares in the last decade.

Tests on cows in the U.S. had come back negative for BSE since 2006. But last month, investigators discovered evidence of the disease in a dead dairy cow in Central California.

The USDA maintained that the case was “atypical” and that the risk of the disease spreading was low.

There was still some backlash, especially in the crucial foreign markets to which the U.S. exports about $5.4 billion in beef a year, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation. Two large retailers in South Korea quickly pulled American beef from their stores and Indonesia announced it would block beef imports.

In 2003, after the first mad cow scare in the U.S., exports fell more than 70%.

“Long after the science had proven that the U.S. beef supply was safe, it took a long, long time to get beef back into some of those countries,” said Tom Talbot, past president of the California Cattlemen’s Assn.

Negative reaction, however, quickly receded when no more mad cow cases emerged. And because of its past experience dealing with the disease, the industry was far better equipped to handle the situation than it was with the surprise pink slime controversy.

“The beef industry and its associations are finally catching up with the times, trying to do their best to reach out to consumers by using new tools,” said Mike Smith, special projects manager at Harris Ranch Beef Co., a company in Selma, Calif. “The outreach is there, it’s growing, and we’re hoping that it’ll be more and more effective as we move forward.”

The California Beef Council got its views out through social media and other online tools. Its home page declares, “Join the ‘I [heart] Beef’ discussion on Facebook, follow the California Beef Council on Twitter, watch our beef industry videos on YouTube, and view our pictures on Flickr.”

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. had established its site to gets its views on the disease out to the public, and it encouraged its Twitter followers to “push factual information out to the public.”

“Our strategy has and always will be to deal with sound science on these issues,” said the association’s communications chief, Daren Williams. “That’s the bottom line. But we’ve adjusted our strategy accordingly to adapt to whatever latest communications vehicle helps us get accurate information to consumers the quickest.”

It will need those tools to win back customers such as West Hollywood blogger Gretchen Schneider, 36. Formerly a vegetarian, she went back to eating meat a decade ago. But she’s once again avoiding beef because of the recent barrage of bad news.

“I’ve done a lot of research; I know that there’s a much greater chance of getting a food-borne illness from a vegetable than a meat,” Schneider said. “But it becomes an emotional thing.”

Historian Ogle said the industry should always be ready to play defense, because its critics “are always going to be on the attack.”

The next crisis might be brewing already. This week, California state Sen. Ted W. Lieu (D-Torrance) sent a letter to the USDA calling for an investigation over a binding agent called transglutaminase, or “meat glue,” that helps patch pieces of meat together.

So far, beef industry representatives said they haven’t heard much outcry on the topic.

“Controversies have been distorted and blown out of proportion,” Ogle said.

But “the meat industry,” she said, “needs to understand that this is the new normal.”