The prevailing take on the so-called “pink slime” controversy has been remarkably consistent. Virtually all of the major media coverage has drawn a stark and simplistic picture: Consumers shouldn’t have to accept disgusting by-products as “cheap filler” in such staples as hamburgers because the only purpose for using such ingredients is lining the pockets of Big Business.
The idea that lean finely textured beef might actually be wholesome only surfaced weeks into the firestorm and long after most grocery stores and fast-food chains had loudly and publicly sworn off the its use—because they care about their customers, of course, and they would never sell a product that’s now tainted with the “ick factor.”
As a result, the manufacturer, Beef Products International, has closed down production plants and laid off hundreds of workers, even while Midwest governors and business leaders tried to rally behind the safety and efficacy of the product.
(Where were they two weeks ago, when the story first broke?)
Now—finally—another side to the debate has emerged, and it’s an argument much broader than merely a debate over whether we can (or should) stomach the addition of pink slime in our ground beef products. As detailed in a recent Los Angeles Times commentary titled, “Food activism may come at a cost”, the power of social media that allowed the pink slime issue to erupt into a major controversy may end up having an effect the same consumers who are now so outraged might ultimately come to regret.
That’s because the activist-led drive to force changes across the entire food production industry is likely to accomplish something nobody wants: An increase in the cost of food.
A serious increase.
Right now, as the Times article noted in citing USDA data, U.S. citizens enjoy one of the least expensive food supplies in earth, at least in terms of the percentage of median incomes spent on food purchases. And that includes the fact that over half of each food dollar is spent on more expensive take-out and foodservice meals.
The wave of consumer-driven complaints about the lean beef ingredient swamped USDA officials, forcing them to stop buying the product for the national school lunch program. That, in turn, led to the supermarket and foodservice sectors hastening to follow suit.
Short-term, the disappearance of BPI’s product won’t radically raise anyone’s grocery bills, but the same process focused on other targets, such as changing the housing systems for pork and egg production, stopping the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture and even curtailing the use of feedlots and finishing programs, could raise food costs considerably.
The rebound from reform
That’s the unknown dynamic underlying the emergence of direct consumer activism through online and social media: Could changes related to environmental and animal welfare issue cause sufficient sticker shock for consumers to re-think their headlong rush to “reform” industrial agriculture?
I believe they could.
Right now, the price tag for voting to ban gestation stalls, for example, is non-existent. Such measures have passed in states with no significant production, or with a built-in delay that puts years between the enactment of the measure and the eventual impact on production and thus food prices. It doesn’t require much thought to decide that cages, stalls and other confinement systems should be eliminated if you’re convinced it won’t affect your weekly food budget.
But if the leverage of social media helps spur a continuing wave of regulatory changes that impact efficiency, two results are almost guaranteed: The first is outsourcing of production, whether to other states or foreign countries, which in either case not only deprives the very residents who voted for what they thought were consequence-free, feel-good improvements to food production of local and regional economic activity but penalizes them where it hurts the most: at the checkout line.
The second is a relentless rise in cost.
It may take years to accumulate enough on-the-ground data to allow consumers to connect the dots between stricter regulation of food production and an inevitable rise in prices, but if trends continue as they are, such an outcome is not at all far-fetched.
That might provide some grim satisfaction to the many industry voices who have been valiantly arguing that food production efficiency isn’t something evil, but it will comes at a cost the rest of won’t be too happy about paying.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator