THE horse meat scandal in Europe has dominated food business news during the past month. It's a huge story that continues to unfold in astonishing fashion, leaving all sorts of questions about, and implications for, the food value chain in its wake.
Meanwhile, that news has minimized coverage of the one-year anniversary of the lean finely textured beef (a.k.a. "pink slime") controversy.
That's disappointing because there needs to be more discussion about the entire turn of events. That necessity exists on two fronts: (1) the role of journalism and social media in shaping public opinion on any number of important societal issues and (2) the relationship between consumers and the food system.
Even though Beef Products Inc. (BPI), maker of the lean beef trim, is taking legal action against ABC News in the form of a $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit, it's doubtful that there'll be much mainstream media attention on either front.
Having said that, Reuters recently covered the issue with a special report, "Did Diane Sawyer Smear 'Pink Slime'?" The article denotes the litigation's significance, saying, "The court fight could put modern television journalism on trial and highlight the power of language in the Internet Age: In the wake of the reports on 'World News with Diane Sawyer,' the term 'pink slime' went viral."
Accordingly, much of the article delves into legal analysis regarding the turn of events between BPI and ABC News.
For those of us in the food world, though, one observation was of special interest, with the article pointing out that the case "underscores an intensifying war between the farm sector and its critics over how food is made." That's a fairly accurate insight into the current state of affairs.
Perhaps that's too much pessimism about the world of food, but divisiveness sure is easy to find, and it seems to be reinforced wherever you turn.
A good example is some of the comments associated with the aforementioned Reuters article. Sure, they're anecdotal and purposefully incendiary; nonetheless, they provide some insight into the current mindset. Here are a select few:
* If you are what you eat, would you rather be called "pink slime" or "lean finely textured beef trimmings and other pieces treated with ammonium hydroxide and other contaminants"? It's really your choice, you know.
* Sounds like they were just busted for hiding this information. They should be glad that they were making a lot of money previously before this information was uncovered, rather than blaming the messenger.
* There is deception here on the part of the manufacturer. PROCESSED or MANIPULATED food is NOT of the same quality as "cut and butchered MEAT." I feel as though I have been deceived, and I WILL NOT eat this product. Their effort to "minimize" the impact of their processing by "renaming" their product to HIDE their processing is DISTURBING.
* Since ground beef has the potential to have anything and anyone added to it, literally, perhaps it should just be outlawed all together. No one can be trusted or believed.
That's just the way it is.
Comments by a Los Angeles Times food columnist aptly summarize the current state of affairs like this: "A long-overdue conversation about food so far hasn't been much of a conversation. Instead, what we have are two armed camps deeply suspicious of one another shouting past each other."
The real question that lies ahead for the food industry has to do with figuring out the proper communication to counter negative sentiment.
What's especially intriguing in all of this is the fact that we even talk about food with descriptors like "camps." Why has it become necessary to draw lines in the sand about anything involving food?
Maybe consumers are ungrateful, and we've all forgotten how good we really have it. In other words, being hungry would provide a whole new context to any conversation about the food system, but that's not the current reality, nor is it likely to be anytime soon.
So, in the meantime, like it or not, the food industry needs to get busy building bridges to counter increasingly pervasive contempt for what consumers don't know about an incredibly complex business.
*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.