Five weeks before the Internet went mad over the presence of “pink slime” in ground beef across the U.S., the product’s creator was being inducted into the Nebraska Business Hall of Fame.
It was Feb. 2, 2012, and Eldon Roth – a man without a college degree – was being celebrated for his life’s work: inventing a method of extracting lean beef from the scraps that would otherwise have been discarded during the butchering process. He was hailed as an innovator in his field, not only for utilizing previously wasted beef, but also for an almost fanatical concern with food safety. The Dakota Dunes, South Dakota-based company he founded, Beef Products, Inc., had developed a reputation for going beyond federal sanitation guidelines in order to prevent bacteria and other microbes from infiltrating its product, according to food scientists who routinely visited the plant. But mostly it was known for producing a leaner and less expensive beef product by combining conventional ground beef with Roth’s unique innovation: lean finely textured beef, or LFTB.
At the Feb. 2 hall of fame induction, Roth thanked Nebraskans for supporting his company since its founding in 1981, and philosophically reflected on his more than three decades in the industry. “Some of the things that you do in life,” Roth said, “at the time, you have no idea what they’re gonna mean.”
In a matter of weeks, Roth and BPI would be the focus of an 11-segment ABC News investigation that slammed the processor for putting "pink slime" in the American food supply and for misleading consumers about its beef products. Soon after, BPI was forced to shut three of its four plants and lay off more than 700 employees after fast food chains, supermarkets, and public schools stopped serving beef that included LFTB. The company went from producing 5 million pounds of LFTB per week to less than 2 million. The company Roth built over 30 years was hobbled in less than 30 days.
The “pink slime” coverage also completely changed ground beef in the U.S. According to industry officials, LFTB is now in an estimated 5% of our beef, down from 70% at this time last year. And while the USDA had planned to purchase 7 million pounds of ground beef with LFTB for use in public schools during the spring 2012, only 1.2 million pounds has been ordered for the entire 2012-2013 school year.
As the meat industry is again in the media spotlight after a series of reports about horse meat showing up in "beef" products all over Europe, the “pink slime” story is still playing itself out in courthouses, law offices, and the one BPI plant still in operation.
The company is still hanging on. After the ABC News reports, BPI launched an extensive public relations campaign, including the website beefisbeef.com, in an attempt to inform the public -- and correct what it says is widespread misinformation -- about LFTB. The company also filed a $1.2 billion lawsuit against ABC News, lead anchor Diane Sawyer, reporter Jim Avila, two former USDA scientists, and others in September, claiming that those defendants published around 200 false and disparaging statements about BPI and LFTB.
Before all the coverage, BPI routinely let reporters inside its plant. Today, the Roth family and BPI employees generally won't speak to members of the media, even by phone. In fact, most of the players in the “pink slime” story -- including the scientist who coined the term, the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver who "manufactured" pink slime on his show, ABC News, laid-off BPI employees, and BPI itself -- are communicating almost exclusively through lawyers or representatives, if they are willing to address the topic at all.
Even so, after revisiting the episode through court documents and media accounts, and by speaking to numerous legal and food industry experts, I became sympathetic to BPI's story. In the end, the odds appear slim that BPI will win a legal judgment because of the pink slime episode. The legal hurdles it would need to clear are very high. But its ethical case is persuasive. In short, the company and its product -- which has never been found to be unsafe, unhealthy, or to have caused food-borne illnesses -- were victims of an insidious viral internet meme that wedged them between two powerful and opposing forces: the need to feed millions cheaply, and the growing desire of American consumers to know exactly what they're eating.
The Origins of ‘Slime’
The key innovation behind LFTB is the use of a centrifuge to separate lean beef from fat. Historically, the small "trimmings" that fall from a beef carcass during the butchering process were discarded because it was too labor-intensive to separate small amounts of muscle meat from masses of unwanted fat. But Roth’s centrifuge technique did the trick. And when the lean and relatively inexpensive result of the process -- LFTB -- is added to conventional ground beef, both the overall price and fat content are reduced.
LFTB was already in production when a severe E. coli outbreak from undercooked hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants sickened more than 600 people and killed four children near Seattle in 1993. BPI products were not involved in the episode, but Roth saw in it an opportunity to make LFTB better. In 1994 he began working on a new method to reduce pathogens in LFTB by treating it with ammonia gas once it was removed from the centrifuge, believing that the process would help prevent outbreaks like the ones at the fast food chain. By 2001, both the FDA and the USDA had approved this new “pH Enhancement System,” and the company began marketing the new ammonia-treated product.
But not everyone at the USDA was happy with BPI’s methods, or the agency's approval. In 2002, USDA microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein sent a private e-mail to a fellow USDA scientist, calling BPI’s product “pink slime” and writing, “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”
“It’s pink. It’s pasty. And it’s slimy looking. So I called it ‘pink slime,’” Zirnstein told the Associated Press last year. “It resonates, doesn’t it?”
For years, Zirnstein’s term didn’t get the chance to resonate because the memo was seen only inside the USDA. But that changed in December 2009 when The New York Times published an article questioning the safety of BPI’s product. The piece cited documentation of E. coli and salmonella pathogens being found “dozens of times in Beef Products meat,” including in shipments to public schools. It also quoted LFTB buyers who complained about a strong ammonia odor coming from the product. Perhaps most significantly, however, the article quoted Zirnstein calling the product “pink slime,” introducing the phrase into the public sphere.
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Still, it wasn't until a year and a half later that the phrase became a full-fledged internet meme. In April 2011, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver purported to replicate the process used to make LFTB on his show, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. On the segment, Oliver douses household ammonia on some beef and then places the mixture into a front-loading washing machine. It’s eye-grabbing, shocking, and Oliver’s end product looks thoroughly disgusting. If the bit was meant to gross people out, it worked. Of course, Oliver's stunt didn't resemble BPI’s actual process, which applies ammonia in a gaseous, not liquid, form -- and doesn't take place in a washing machine. But that hasn't prevented the clip from being viewed close to 1.7 million times. (Oliver declined to discuss the segment though a representative, who said the celebrity chef had “no spare time right now.”)
It took almost another year for the ABC News series to air, portraying Zirnstein as a reluctant whistleblower, and claiming that 70% of U.S. ground beef contained LFTB, a product that was once used for dog food but had since been deemed fit for humans. “It’s economic fraud,” said Zirnstein in one of the ABC News reports. “It’s not fresh ground beef. It’s a substitute. It’s a cheap substitute being added in.”
ABC News aired 11 segments on pink slime between March 7 and April 3 on both ABC World News and Good Morning America along with 14 online reports. According to the lawsuit filed by BPI, the plant repeatedly gave the network information about its product to dispute some of ABC's claims, including documents showing that LFTB had been deemed safe by the USDA. BPI claims that the news network was just trying to boost ratings. ABC News refused to comment for this story, but in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed in October, the network argued that it "repeatedly stated that LFTB was safe to eat" and that the term pink slime "while unflattering, does not convey false facts about the color or texture of LFTB and is precisely the kind of 'imaginative expression' and 'rhetorical hyperbole' that is constitutionally protected."
A number of food scientists were interviewed last year when "pink slime" seemed to have taken over the Internet. Today, several of them say that a lot of the information they presented to reporters did not end up in the coverage.
“I talked to a lot of media people last year,” says Jim Dickson, an Iowa State University professor who has conducted research for BPI. “On one particularly memorable day, I talked to four different media sources. I can tell you that I provided them with the scientific basis for things like why they used an ammonia-injection process for food safety. In roughly 80% of the cases, none of that information made it into the news.”
Dickson says at one point he was criticized by some in the meat industry for not providing enough information about BPI to the media. “My only response was, well, they had the information. They chose not to use it.”
Gary Acuff, director of the Texas A&M Center for Food Safety, who has publicly defended BPI in the past, similarly says he believes ABC News elected to leave out facts about the safety of LFTB. “The easiest way to get people’s attention is to start telling them something they’re eating is disgusting or poisonous,” he says. “And boy, you can get their attention fast.”
As ABC News attempts to get the entire lawsuit dismissed, the parties are wrangling over where a trial would be held. The case has been sent to federal court, but BPI would like it moved back to South Dakota state court, where the company would likely face a more sympathetic jury, says Erika Eckley, a staff attorney at the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation at Iowa State University.
Wherever the case plays out, however, Eckley says BPI faces an uphill legal battle. "The big thing they'll have to prove is disparagement," says Eckley. "They're going to have show there was an implication that [LFTB] was unsafe -- and I'm not sure they're going to be able to prove that." ABC News argues that its reports never said BPI's product was unsafe; and it's true that the network made clear that LFTB had been approved by the USDA. So the case is likely to turn on whether BPI can convince a jury that ABC's repeated use of the phrase "pink slime" implied that it wasn't safe to eat.
The case will be one of the first challenging First Amendment protections for news outlets in the social media era. One notable piece of evidence cited in BPI's lawsuit is a single Tweet by reporter Jim Avila, who wrote: "It's just not what it purports to be. Meat." One of BPI's arguments is that ABC News intentionally portrayed its product as something other than beef. (The USDA considers LFTB to be beef.)
If the case is not dismissed, it's likely to be one of the most high-profile defamation suits to go to trial in recent memory, and a rare test of state food disparagement laws. The last big case involving food libel laws like those found in South Dakota involved a lawsuit brought against Oprah Winfrey by a Texas cattle producer during the mad cow disease scare of the mid-1990s. On her show, Winfrey swore off eating beef and said the "disease could make AIDS look like the common cold." The Texas cattle producer was ultimately unable to prove that Winfrey had made any false statements.
Reporting on Reporting About Pink Slime
Whatever happens in court, the hundreds of jobs lost due to last year's "pink slime" coverage don't appear to be coming back anytime soon. One of those former BPI employees is Bruce Smith.
Smith worked at BPI for four and a half years as the environmental, health, and safety director, as well as its senior counsel. He’s written a book called Pink Slime Ate My Job and was quoted in a press release for the book saying, “I am fighting back against the media and those persons whose irresponsible and tortious actions cost me my job.” Apparently, that includes me.
When I tried to interview Smith, I hit a wall with Lisa Smith, a spokesperson for his small Iowa-based publisher Rauttnee. “Since the traditional and social media interests, for the most part, chose not to report the truth about the matter from the start,” Smith e-mailed me, “he has no reason to believe that you, on behalf of Time, Inc., would be any different. The real story to be explored lies within the media reporting itself and the lack of accountability your profession hides behind at the expense of the truth resulting in workers unjustly losing their jobs. Acceptable collateral damage? Please govern yourself accordingly.”
So I took Lisa Smith’s advice. Maybe the pink slime story one year on is actually about the coverage itself. Indeed, a significant part of BPI's problem was that many news outlets (including TIME) reported about the ABC News coverage, often recycling what ABC and other outlets were reporting.
Meanwhile, millions of Americans tweeted about that same coverage and commented about it on Facebook. And throughout it all, of course, the media and social media users were endlessly repeating the phrase “pink slime.” Without that negative moniker, BPI might be doing just fine these days.
At TIME, we ran several articles last year about the product and BPI, some simply reporting what others were saying, and a few that took a closer look at the product. All of our coverage included the phrase “pink slime.” But we never ran the now-infamous photo of what some claimed is LFTB but looks more like soft-serve strawberry ice cream than beef.
To this day, the origins of that photo remain a mystery. Even the food scientists I talked to weren’t sure where it came from or what it was. One of them believes it may have been a step in the process at BPI, but the company vehemently denies it’s from one of its plants. Others think it came from a polystyrene plant that made packaging material. “If you look around at the background in the photograph, it’s obvious that it’s not a food plant,” says Acuff of Texas A&M, referring to the guys in street shoes and the unlined cardboard box, both of which Acuff says would violate USDA regulations. “This is definitely not BPI and the product is not a food.”
The Future of Food?
Perhaps the most persuasive criticism of LFTB is not a criticism of the product itself, but of the fact that very few of us knew it was in our beef. BPI argues that its product is beef and doesn’t need different labeling. But we live in a post-Food Inc., world, one with crop-to-cup coffee and farm-to-table dinners. More than ever, Americans want to understand where their food comes from and the processing it went through along the way. As a result, many of us are disturbed -- even indignant -- to learn that a product that isn’t processed like traditional ground beef can be labeled as such.
We're also turned off when food processing doesn’t look like something we could do at home -- even though most modern, large-scale food production involves unfamiliar industrial processes. “We have a consumer that wants to understand where their food comes from,” says Dana Hanson, a food scientist at North Carolina State University. “But the reality is that ... if we’re going to produce food that is going to feed the millions of people in this country, we can’t use kitchen techniques.”
Take BPI's use of ammonia, which for most Americans conjures images of household cleansers, but was in fact applied in a gaseous form. “That’s where I think a lot of the confusion came,” Hanson says. “It’s not as if you’re taking floor-cleaning household ammonia and dumping it in a washtub like some folks have illustrated. When ammonia in a gas form comes in contact with meat, it ceases to exist as the ammonia we commonly think of.”
Food scientists argue that as populations continue to increase, we will by necessity become more reliant on these types of industrial food products and processes. "Pink slime" may simply have been an early skirmish in what will be an ongoing clash between the demands of feeding entire countries and the cultural trend toward whole foods, sustainable food sources, and farm-to-table awareness. In the end, economics may tip the scales one way or another: Many in the industry think that if beef prices were to rise substantially, a product like LFTB that can substantially reduce prices would quickly make a comeback.
Since last year’s “pink slime” coverage, BPI's founder Roth has largely stayed silent. He was reportedly despondent after BPI was forced to close some of its plants last spring. But BPI is still operating, and has recieved significant support from local communities and politicians. Three states, in fact -- Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota, all home to a current or former BPI plant -- still serve BPI’s product in its school. And scattered reports suggest that demand is picking up, if slowly.
Update 3/6/13: A previous version of this article included reference to a lawsuit brought by a former BPI employee against many of the same parties being sued by BPI; the reference was removed after we learned the lawsuit had been dropped.