Over the past few weeks, outcry over ammonium hydroxide-treated boneless lean beef trimmings – an ingredient that has picked up the alternate title of “pink slime” along the way – has risen to a fever pitch. Several incidents have fueled this snowball effect, from major fast food chains swearing off the meat product to the USDA’s (now significantly revised) plans to purchase 7 million lbs of it for school lunches. Last week the issue was pushed even farther, with retail chains like Safeway, Kroger, and even Wal-Mart either dropping the product or giving consumers new choices. Now the backlash has reached the top: just days after taking out a full page ad pleading its case in the Wall Street Journal, Beef Products Inc (BPI) has reportedly suspended production at three of its four processing plants.
The Associated Press reports that BPI has suspended operations at its plants in Amarillo, TX; Garden City, KS; and Waterloo, IA. BPI director of food safety and quality assurance Craig Letch tells AP reporters that company officials are working to address the public’s concerns, and indicates that the company may be waiting until the dust settles from the recent media storm:
"We feel like when people can start to understand the truth and reality then our business will come back," Letch said. "It's 100 percent beef."
It’s a difficult situation – BPI currently employs around 200 workers at each of its plants. But AP reports that BPI will continue to support those workers with full salary and benefits for sixty days during this cessation of operations. Meanwhile the company will be planning its next business move, and its flagship plant in South Dakota’s Dakota Dunes will remain in operation.
Some are pointing their fingers at the media for caring more about headlines than truth and blowing things out of proportion. But one could also argue that this issue speaks to the importance of transparency in food labeling. With technology advancing and information traveling ever faster through social media, the public is becoming increasingly interested in how its food is made. Of course all beef is beef, but any time a different method of processing and a different set of additives are employed, it’s fair to say that it’s a different product – kind of like how flour and sugar and eggs could become a baguette or a cupcake, depending on the processing.
Even in the most fantastic pop culture, learning that food products aren’t exactly what they say they are has never gone over well. Consumers don’t ask for too much: many are content to snack on mystery meat hot dogs, if only because the fact that it’s mystery meat has never been a mystery. They simply want the power to know what they’re getting, and businesses that respect them enough to give them that choice.
It’s possible that, if beef products had always been labeled clearly – if one could prove that consumers always had the choice to go with pre-processed beef or freshly ground steaks – the current movement and its resulting circumstances might have been very different. But as it stands, the meat production industry now faces a difficult road ahead, in terms of both controlling damage in the present and rebuilding trust with consumers in the future.