While we can’t predict the next public-relations crisis in animal agriculture, we can learn from past experiences and perhaps stamp out the spark before it becomes a firestorm. At last week’s Cattle Feeders Business Summit hosted by Merck Animal Health in Denver, several speakers outlined efforts to avert or manage these issues, with several saying the industry is better prepared than ever to do so.
The case of lean, finely textured beef (LFTB) serves as a classic example of an issue that quickly spun out of control, and as an opportunity to learn how to prevent similar crises in the future. Danette Amstein, co-founder of Midan Marketing in Statesville, North Carolina, described her company’s research into the LFTB issue during the fall of 2012, several months after the media storm subsided.
Midan Marketing surveyed a national sample of meat eaters regarding their perceptions of LFTB and tested communications strategies and messages on a smaller sample of consumers. Not surprisingly, the survey showed a high level of awareness of the issue, but also significant misperceptions.
Among the respondents, 28 percent had heard of LFTB, while 81 percent had heard of “pink slime.” That result leads to one of Amstein’s first recommendations to the industry, which is to use caution and common sense in the terminology we use, even when communicating within the industry. The “pink slime” term reportedly originated with USDA scientists, but once it escaped into conventional and social media, the damage was done.
When researchers asked consumers to define LFTB, 29 percent described the product as processed scraps or parts, 18 percent said it is filler and 14 percent said they didn’t know. Interestingly, none of them defined it as beef.
Of the respondents, 68 percent said they were concerned about the product and 36 percent were very concerned. As for specific concerns, 18 percent believed LFTB would affect their health, 12 percent said it is not real meat, 9 percent said the name sounds bad and another 9 percent said they felt deceived by the product.
As for the issue of the ammonium hydroxide used to control pathogens during LFTB production, only 7 percent of respondents brought it up unaided, but after some explanation of the process, 27 percent said it was their top concern.
Actual changes in behavior were mixed, with 38 percent of respondents saying they did nothing out of the ordinary in response to LFTB coverage, while 33 percent checked if their store used it and 34 percent looked up information on LFTB. Fourteen percent moved to natural or organic ground beef, 8 percent switched stores and 8 percent stopped purchasing ground beef.