In a matter of weeks, activists have been able to assassinate a popular product through a confluence of events: an official labeled it derogatorily as "pink slime," social media buzz (or anti-buzz), and media attention against the background of Americans' greater concern about processed foods. Could this happen to other products? Does it relate to a broader shift in power from PR firms and industry to the consumer mob?
John Bussey has a good article in today's Wall Street Journal featuring some of the wound-licking of the lean finely textured beef industry. Note the tactics:
1) Make it about consumer choice:
This week beef producers belatedly said they're considering labeling the beef that contains LFTB. The idea is simple. Tell consumers what they're buying. Give them an option. Let them make the choice.
Of course, how much choice do I have as a student at some public school that has decided to save five cents on my burger by packing it with LFTB?
2) Change the language:
Notice the use of LFTB acronym...Notice the reporter used it, and it is the same acronym used by the industry.
3) Make an entirely unverifiable and vague claim, one that reporters seem to always quote faithfully:
"We have recently seen an increased interest in purchasing ground beef containing LFTB as customers and consumers gain access to more accurate information," adds Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson Foods..."
I am so totally sure that if consumers just knew that their food had to be treated with ammonia because of underlying problems with the safety of its rendering, they would clamor for it.
4) Rely upon toady regulators--here the USDA. Note the unidentified spokesperson. Does the fact that the USDA expert won't identify him/herself a signal?
"It's beef," says a USDA official. "There are various parts of the animal that come together in ground beef. This is just one part."
5) Say it's really no different from the rest of the sorry state of processed foods, because that is a very cogent argument:
As for the ick factor, well, wake up and smell the Spam. "There are plenty of examples in the food system where you could come up with a derogatory term for the process," says Edward Mills of Penn State's animal science department. "Luncheon meat, sausage, hot dogs. All of these are batter products. They're made in a slurry. It isn't pretty."
6) And don't forget to malign the critics:
"a troubling mix of industry intransigence, uninformed consumers and a megaphone-toting media--social and otherwise. The only innocent bystander was the cow."
Of course, consumers are always uninformed. No one can be fully informed...
In order to win the larger battle with big business and their PR tactics, the consumer movement (and ordinary consumer themselves) has to recognize these tactics. In large part, this article has illustrated the pattern of argumentation that is so effective at manipulating the media and regulators. We need to get wise to this.