As if we needed more proof that social media can trigger a communications crisis, here comes the case of “pink slime,” or finely textured beef used as filler in up to 15 percent of all ground beef sold in the U.S.
This unfortunately nicknamed product has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since the early 1990s. In April 2011, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver unleashed a viral firestorm when he demonstrated the “pink slime” production process in an unappetizing way on his show, creating a major headache for the U.S. beef industry. More recently, Diane Sawyer of ABC News brought the story into the limelight in early March with a segment titled “Pink Slime and You.”
From a crisis management standpoint, the case of “pink slime” underscores several key points:
- Food is an extremely emotional issue. Consumers panic easily when they feel that their food is unsafe and often their reactions are prompted by feelings, not only by reason. Messages that focus solely on scientific facts and logical arguments are not likely to resonate well.
- Consumers are increasingly asking for transparency with regard to their food. Calls for labeling – be it for ammonia in “finely textured beef” or for GM ingredients in other foods – are likely to get stronger before they go away.
- The consumer is king. The prompt decision by a number of national supermarket chains to no longer carry ground beef products containing “pink slime” demonstrates that they put customers’ preferences first, despite longstanding business relationships with beef manufacturers. While stakeholder outreach is crucial in today’s business environment, it is prudent to remember that stakeholders will follow their customers’ lead first and foremost.
- Consumers distrust the government. The FDA approval label did nothing to inspire confidence in the quality and safety of the product. It remains to be seen if the vocal support by several governors whose states are home to beef filler factories will sway public opinion.
- Crisis planning is critical for protecting an organization’s reputation and its freedom to operate. The beef industry did not anticipate the severity of this crisis. It took BPI and the beef industry weeks to adjust messaging and generate third party support, not before it was forced to close down several factories and lay off employees.
While processed beef filler may never fully restore its reputation, the case of “pink slime” provides a critical learning opportunity in crisis planning for other companies in the food business.