Commentary by Gary R. Acuff, Professor and Director, Center for Food Safety, Texas A&M University and H. Russell Cross, Professor and Head, Department of Animal Science, Texas A&M University
So is she? Is Sarah Palin stupid? If you watch ABC, NBC or CBS – yep, she is dumb as dirt. If you get your news from Fox News, she is brilliant and insightful. What about Al Gore? Is he an environmental nut case? Watch Fox News and you will be convinced he couldn’t change a flat tire. The “main stream” networks will present him as forward thinking and intellectual. Rush Limbaugh? Bill Maher? The source of your news will slant the information you are provided and, if you are not careful, your ultimate opinion on the individual or issue. News organizations know that their ratings, and therefore their revenue, depend on loyal viewers. And viewers are only loyal when the news grabs their attention or their fear.
Today the news is all about Lean Fine-Textured Beef (LFTB) or “pink slime” as ABC has boldly labeled it. To hear Diane Sawyer describe it, ABC News has completed an exhaustive “investigation” to protect you from exposure to something that is presented as another vile and devious plot of the beef industry. Their exposé has provided a public service by showing consumers that they are unknowingly eating something meant for pet food, and the public outcry has undoubtedly boosted their ratings and generated potential advertiser revenues. Never mind that the information provided was false and misleading. Does that really matter? Not really. Just place that information in context with everything else you are hearing: Sarah Palin is stupid, Al Gore is an environmental wing nut, Barak Obama is a Socialist, you are eating pink slime.
What are the facts? Does it matter? Public perception is all that matters when you have a product to sell. We understand that it is impossible to market a product that exists counter to public perception. We can’t tell the consumer that raw meat may contain pathogenic bacteria and that they need to use a thermometer in the kitchen to make sure they cook it properly. We tell them instead that our regulatory agencies require extensive testing of ground beef and the product they buy can be assured to be safe. Hogwash.
Are you familiar with the expression “sick and tired?” That’s where we are right now. We are sick and tired of the news media hijacking the truth, minimizing science, frightening consumers and creating a false crisis, just to boost their ratings. We have seen too many people hurt, too many businesses destroyed, all for the benefit of some talking head’s career. We are fed up. And we hope the food industry is fed up as well.
It is time to stand up and defend the U.S. food industry. The only people who can do that are the people who know the truth, and that is not the news media or some random “consumer on the street.” We all need to defend our colleagues in the food industry who are being wrongly accused. Individuals are powerless against the news media, but the food producing community as a whole is strong. How many of us ran for the shadows when “pink slime” was “exposed?” Don’t expect anyone to come to your aid when a ridiculous story is broadcast on your product. And, believe us, that situation is right around the corner. Do you think you have science on your side? That didn’t help “pink slime” and it won’t help you unless we all (industry and academia) resolve to defend the truth.
It is time for all of us to rise up and put an end to this nonsense. Sarah Palin is not brilliant, but she is not stupid. Al Gore acts a little nutty, but he has a passion for the environment and is trying to get people to take notice. Lean Fine-Textured Beef is not unsafe, deceptive or pet food. I (Cross) approved the use of this product in food when I was Administrator of FSIS because it is safe and an excellent source of nutrients. In this age of sustainability, it would be insane to waste millions of pounds of excellent protein. We need to step up and be the clear-thinking, informed source of information – before it is too late.