Early last month, a former scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture did an interview with ABC News. He stated that 70% of ground beef sold in U.S. supermarkets contains an ingredient he described as “pink slime.”
Within three weeks, Beef Products Inc., the largest supplier of the ingredient, which the industry had previously described as “lean finely textured beef” or “boneless lean beef trimmings,” had been forced to suspend operations at three of its four U.S. plants.
There were no illness outbreaks or safety concerns associated with the ingredient or the company, but in the face of growing consumer outrage expressed on Facebook, Twitter, online petition sites and blogs, food retailers bailed on BLBT en masse.
If their suppliers used BLBT, they told them to stop. In the space of two days, Wal-Mart, Kroger, Safeway, Supervalu and Ahold USA all announced plans to pull the ingredient.
If their ground beef did not contain BLBT, chains including Publix, Costco and Whole Foods were sure to notify the media. Fresh & Easy even used the uproar as an opportunity for a marketing stunt. During their “Pink Slime Swap Meat” last week, the company offered customers the chance to trade in suspect beef from other stores for Fresh & Easy’s BLBT-free beef.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had a press conference in Des Moines last week in an attempt to counter negative public perception. Branstad also planned to accompany Govs. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rick Perry of Texas on a tour of the remaining Beef Products Inc. plant near Sioux City, S.D., in an effort to restore the company’s image.
That may not be possible. The term “pink slime” is evocative, disgusting and now it is stuck in shoppers’ heads. They’ve also seen the unappealing photos — mostly erroneously captioned photos of mechanically separated chicken — that have accompanied many of the online news stories. This genie is not going back in the bottle.
Most food retailers have dealt with major or minor public relations crises before. This is one of the first in which social media has played a major role, and it has made it obvious that supermarkets will need to be on their toes going forward. Because while it is becoming clear that social media can help the public seize an obscure issue and blow it out of proportion within days, it’s never clear what consumers will seize on next.