Shakespeare was wrong.
To paraphrase The Bard: What’s in a catchphrase? That which we call Lean Finely Textured Beef given any other name wouldst not smell nearly as sweet.
If anyone doubts the power of words, members of the jury, allow me to introduce Exhibit A: Pink Slime.
For years, Beef Products Inc.(BPI) marketed a unique, many would call an ingenious product: a 100% beef protein recovered from tissues on bones and trim during butchering. The product was typically added to ground beef formulations to reduce the labeled fat percentage — and most consumers believe the lower the number, the better the burger.
Numerous retail grocery chains and fast-food vendors used the product, which didn’t require additional labeling, since it was chemically 100% beef protein.
Speaking of chemicals, LFTB processing utilized ammonia gas to reduce microbial loads, which are abnormally high with any type of mechanically separated meat or poultry product. That fact would eventually add to the product’s perceived negatives.
But the beginning of the end of LFTB’s market penetration came via a single statement by a former USDA microbiologist named Gerald Zirnstein, who called the product “pink slime” in a 2002 agency email.
Let me confirm how powerful that catchphrase became. In asking hundreds — and I’m not exaggerating — hundreds of people across all kinds of demographics over the last several years what they consider to be the most serious “problems” with eating beef, you know what virtually everyone says?
Three things: E. coli, mad cow, and pink slime.
Consider that trifecta for a moment.
The emergence of the E. coli O157:H7 pathogen has triggered dozens of massive recalls, caused hundreds of people to fall desperately ill and resulted in numerous deaths, primarily young children.
Mad cow, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, widespread in the 1990s in the U.K. and across Europe, caused millions of cattle to be destroyed, and far worse, the deaths of more than 220 people from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease thought to be caused by eating beef products containing the prions responsible for the disease.
Meanwhile, LFTB, although unappetizing in its raw form — it’s produced under high pressure and thus has the consistency of a slurry, rather than muscle meat — is safe and wholesome, totally edible and was consumed without incident by millions of Americans for years and years before anyone even knew what it was.
All that changed with two words: pink slime.
A high bar
In 2012, the ABC Television network ran a 20/20 segment on what they gleefully called pink slime, detailing the industrial process used by Dakota Dunes, S.D.-based BPI to create the product. The show featured close-ups of what certainly didn’t look like beef to the average consumers, and the reporting emphasized that pink slime was present in 70% of all ground beef sold in supermarkets, even though it wasn’t labeled. What wasn’t mentioned was that the grocery chains were adding the beef protein so that the fat percentages on the package labels would be lower, and thus command a premium price.
BPI then sued ABC for damages that under South Dakota law could total as much as $1.9 billion, claiming that the network’s coverage misled consumers into believing the product is unsafe. BPI said its business fell off dramatically in the wake of the TV show, as major fast-food chains and supermarkets quickly announced they would no longer be adding pink slime to their ground beef products. BPI officials said they were forced to close plants and layoff hundreds of workers.
Ironically, Zirnstein and ABC anchor Diane Sawyer have been dismissed from the lawsuit, leaving only the network and correspondent Jim Avila as defendants, according to The Washington Post.
ABC, of course, stated in court documents that it accurately presented information from “knowledgeable sources on a matter of keen public interest” in its pinks slime segment, and I hate to say it, but they will probably prevail.
According to legal experts sourced by The Post, BPI must demonstrate that ABC and Avila made “defamatory implications or statements,” and that they either knew the statements were false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.
Ask any lawyer: That’s a high bar for a plaintiff to meet.
In the end, pink slime will live on right next to E. coli and mad cow as enduring icons of how the public perceives the disgusting, dangerous threats contained in those packages of ground beef and those bags of takeout burgers.
And we’ll keep right on cooking, eating and enjoying them both, despite all the misinformation and gross visuals the media constantly serves up.
And that will be the ABC legal team’s closing argument, asking the jury: Where’s the harm?
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator