Commentary: Bad news bearer

 Resize text         Printer-friendly version of this article Printer-friendly version of this article

“If red meat had a publicity agent, he or she would be fired by now.”

That’s the provocative opening of an article titled, “Can Red Meat Be Saved as a Healthful Menu Item?”

I think most of us would answer “Yes!” to that question without a whole lot of hesitation, but since this story was published in New Zealand—a country renowned for its beef and lamb exports—it’s irony is doubly poignant.

As the writer, Martha Rosenberg, a reporter for New Zealand’s Scoop Media Independent News Service, phrased it, “Publicity agents are supposed to plant positive news about their client and kill any negative publicity.”

Well, that’s one definition of the PR process; others might argue that all publicity—if it can be properly spun—is valuable. At any rate, bad publicity’s not something that any agent has the ability to “disappear.”

Rosenberg then lists a succession of damaging events over the past decade:

  • Mad cow disease surfaces in the USA 2003, with additional cows diagnosed in following years.
  • Jim Cantalupo, then-McDonald’s chairman and CEO, suffers a fatal heart attack at a company event in 2004.
  • Charlie Bell, Cantalupo’s replacement, is diagnosed with colon cancer two weeks after taking office—and also dies.
  • The books “Fast Food Nation” (by Eric Schlosser) and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (by Michael Pollan) stay on The New York Times bestseller list for years.
  • Clandestine video of abused downers (at Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing) in 2008 sparks the largest meat recall in U.S. history, tarring the National School Lunch Program in 2008; the industry reacts by trying to criminalize such activity.
  • Oprah Winfrey flirts with a meat-free diet, Bill Clinton becomes a confirmed vegetarian and Martha Stewart broadcasts “A Vegetarian Thanksgiving” show in 2009.

Let’s review that list (after agreeing that Winfrey, Stewart and Clinton all have their fans, regardless of what they eat).

The deaths of two McDonald’s executives were unfortunate, but it certainly didn’t cripple the company’s sales. In fact, I’d characterize their deaths, while tragic, as a not-unexpected event among Type A, high-stress corporate executives. It’s unfortunate the two were involved in a food company and died of diseases linked to dietary risk factors, but take a look around next time you’re inside one of the Golden Arches: Do you really believe that crowd's thinking, “You know, this restaurant’s CEO died of a heart attack. Maybe I’d better head over to Whole Foods for a watercress and tofu sandwich instead.”

No, probably not.

Now, I grant you—anyone who’s read Schlosser’s and Pollan’s books encounters a highly charged, seriously negative perspective on the meat industry. But for the most part, those books spoke to the percentage of the population already convinced that fast-food is junk food. I doubt if too many hearts and minds were truly changed. More likely, a few semi-critical attitudes about meat-eating were hardened, but that process works both ways whenever someone appeals to people at either end of an opinion spectrum.

The problem was elsewhere

Probably the most damaging item on Rosenberg’s list is the Westmark Packing incident, not only for the size of the recall—an eye-opener—but more so for the graphic video footage itself. As I’ve noted many times before, how else do you move an immobile cow weighing 1,200 pounds is she won’t’ get up and walk? You have to fire up a forklift, but that’s not going to be a pretty sight.

The real problem with the Westmark operation originated upstream, on dairy farms where cows are kept in production until they can barely walk, then shipped off to a low-rent, low-margin cow plant that barely turns a profit even when prices are strong. You have weakened animals, a plant that has to operate at high volume to stay in the black but can’t afford anything other than bottom-of-the-barrel wages for the work force.

It’s a recipe for exactly what the HSUS operatives captured on camera, and it didn’t do the industry—or the company—one bit of good.

But let’s end on a couple of positive notes. For one, I’d argue that the way the mad cow crisis was eventually handled turned a negative into a positive. After some embarrassing waffling and one horrific overreaction (closing the border with Canada), both USDA and the industry crafted a fairly positive story about the new precautions put in place, ones that added some substance to the mantra that consumer safety comes first.

And polling conducted months after the Christmas week incident in 2003 showed that consumer perceptions of beef safety had increased, most likely as a result of the torrent of media coverage of the new standards and precautions industry put in place.

Likewise, on the flood of research purporting to show that red meat causes cancer, heart disease, a higher risk of death and a host of other really bad outcomes, I think Rosenberg’s take is wrong. Why? Because the sheer volume of the reporting deadens its impact. I mean, how many “horror stories” about the dangers of eating beef, pork and processed meat consumption can the average citizen consume—while their lifestyles and their dietary choices proceed unchanged—before they start to “tune out” the noise?

Yes, per capita meat consumption is down over the past three years, but most economists attribute that decline to the lingering effects of the 2008 recession, not to some massive tidal wave of bad news that has shifted public opinion.

And yes, food-safety incidents continue to surface on occasion, but again, polling shows that public concern spikes while news media cover the story, then it virtually disappears from people’s unprompted lists of concerns once it’s over.

The bottom line is that red meat isn’t going anywhere. Maybe the industry could use a jolt or two of positive news, but meanwhile, 250 million Americans who consume it regularly can’t be all wrong.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

Prev 1 2 3 Next All

Comments (3) Leave a comment 

e-Mail (required)


characters left

April, 17, 2013 at 07:54 PM

More bad news! How Tumors Use Meat to Grow Red meat linked to risk of premature death Meat is manly? Think again (erectile dysfunction & prostate cancer) Diet changes can help protect against prostate cancer,0,1233157,full.story

Dave Louthan    
Moses Lake, Wa  |  April, 18, 2013 at 12:41 AM

You're an idiot.

Texas  |  April, 18, 2013 at 12:35 PM

you tell em there dave ! Monday, April 15, 2013 Dr. Stephen B. Thacker Director Centers for Disease Control and Prevention′s Office of Science, Epidemiology and Laboratory Services (OSELS) dies from Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease CJD Tuesday, March 5, 2013 Use of Materials Derived From Cattle in Human Food and Cosmetics; Reopening of the Comment Period FDA-2004-N-0188-0051 (TSS SUBMISSION) FDA believes current regulation protects the public from BSE but reopens comment period due to new studies Wednesday, March 20, 2013 GAO-13-244, Mar 18, 2013 Dietary Supplements FDA May Have Opportunities to Expand Its Use of Reported Health Problems to Oversee Product From: Terry S. Singeltary Sr. Sent: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 2:46 PM To: Cc: ; ; Wednesday, February 20, 2013 World Organization for Animal Health Recommends United States' BSE Risk Status Be Upgraded Statement from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack: Thursday, February 14, 2013 The Many Faces of Mad Cow Disease Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy BSE and TSE prion disease TSS

XUV 855 Power Steering

Combining power steering with diesel power, durability and toughness, the 30 MPH, 22.8 HP John Deere Gator XUV855D features updates that enhance ... Read More

View all Products in this segment

View All Buyers Guides

Feedback Form
Leads to Insight