Meat and Poultry Industry News / Beef / Editors Viewpoint

BPI's fate: A disaster, a shame … and hopefully a lesson

March 27, 2012
Well, ladies and gentlemen, the unthinkable has happened — or maybe not so unthinkable, if you’re a particularly cynical person. Activists and the misguided, misinformed public have won a battle that they had no business winning.

A media battle that should have simply been filtered out by the next completely non-newsworthy attention-grabbing headline. A media battle that they should have lost. A media battle that should not have even occurred, to be honest. Yet, somehow, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and his merry band of misfit spin-artists have run down a perfectly good meat processor, Beef Products Inc. (BPI), for its finely textured lean beef products, or as the uneducated masses incorrectly called it, “pink slime.”

What makes this victory different from past activist “victories”?

BPI did nothing wrong here, yet was forced to temporarily suspend production in the hopes that the firestorm around its proven-safe product will die down and more of its customers won’t bow to the pressure of the horribly misinformed public.

Now, I have no sympathy for meat processors who skirt the rules of food safety, or mistreat animals, or knowingly hire undocumented workers, or break the law in any other ways. They get what they deserve, and I’ll be the last person working in or around the meat industry to defend those companies. Those are the bad apples, and the industry needs none of them.

But BPI is a different story. I’ve visited BPI and worked closely with its staff many times over the years — I’ve met many of the line workers, maintenance team, sales team, HR team and the like. I’ve walked through BPI’s facilities and have seen how it goes about making sure that food safety is the top priority, and I've seen the innovative techniques it uses — many of them ahead of their time — to reinforce that.

That said, I can't fault BPI for its decision to suspend production. At this stage, the only way to put out the wildfire is to flee to the river, let the fire run out of fuel and hope to God that there’s a strong foundation left upon which to build when you return.

It all just happened too fast for a company that simply was not fully prepared to handle the social-media frenzy that occurs when lies, deceit and even the slightest misinformation hits the Internet. BPI needs to know, however, that it is far from the only company in the industry ill-prepared for such an onslaught.

I’m sure that BPI has learned a lesson, and I have little doubt that it will rise again — BPI is far more than simply finely textured lean beef. The question is, have other processors learned anything and will they act upon it?

Is your company prepared for what happens in the event of a recall, or a foodborne illness outbreak, or a biosecurity threat, or any number of real, tangible crises?

Yes? That’s fantastic.

Now, what happens when the crisis is made up? What if the firestorm is fueled by false information and viral videos on the Internet, social-media and TV? How will your company respond?

If your company doesn’t have an answer, pay close attention, as it’s based on that same old tune you’ve heard me sing throughout my time on this publication. There shouldn’t have to be a crisis-level response to false information, because false information shouldn’t exist regarding the meat industry!

There are processors and associations proactively attempting to educate the masses now, but ALL processors need to get out and CONTROL the message — not in a censorship way, but in a consumer-friendly, educational way. Now.

Eliminate the fear that the public has of “what goes on behind closed doors,” and those who attempt to spread false information have no audience. Jamie Oliver and his counterparts prey on fear and the herd mentality. Without counter-information already in their mental files, readers and viewers will believe whatever they see first, and the longer it takes them to find the time to investigate reality, the deeper the falsehood is engrained in their psyche.

The activists won’t stop at BPI, and they will NEVER stop coming at the industry until the industry proactively engages consumers and shows them the truth, no matter how you believe they’ll initially respond.

If you give consumers a choice based on honesty, there will be no false-information firestorms — only tiny little campfires that are far easier to keep under control. Open the doors, open the books and let them see and hear what we are doing as an industry and WHY. Have faith in the good that the industry is doing, and faith in the fact that there are many, many consumers who love meat.

It may sting at first, but the faster the industry removes the Band-Aid that has been covering the truth about what we do, the faster the pain goes away and things get back to normal.

Either deal with that temporary pain now, or be prepared to face a whole lot more pain when your company is run over by a social-media truck.

A petition has been started at Whitehouse.gov asking the Administration to address the topic of the USDA altering its policy on finely textured lean beef in schools in response to a social-media petition. As a member of the meat industry, be proactive and take a look at it, and if you agree with its mission, then sign it and pass it along. Start fighting social media with social media. Click this link to be taken to the White House petition online: http://bit.ly/GUyI7L.

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