Author’s note: Special thanks to Joel Chappelle, a food safety professional in our firm, for his research for and contributions to this article. Joel has worked with us for many years, assisting food companies throughout the nation.
The past six months have been a roller coaster for Eldon Roth—founder of BPI—and his company. Last fall, he was inducted into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame, joining household names like Dr. Temple Grandin, Colonel Harland Sanders, and Jimmy Dean.
He has been called an innovator, a philanthropist, and a genius. He is respected and lauded not only by the thousands who have worked for him, but also by the USDA, the meat industry, and, most tellingly, a host of food safety activists and organizations. In an industry that spends billions fighting an uphill battle against microbiological contamination, his products have never been tied to a single foodborne illness or outbreak. Yet, in spite of all that, he finds himself fighting for the life of his company and the jobs of his employees.
The attack on BPI, in its current incarnation, seems to have begun with an April 2010 television segment in which celebrity chef Jamie Oliver invited children and their parents to view a demonstration of what he “imagined” lean, finely textured beef production to be. Discerning viewers recognized the ploy, which included throwing large chunks of beef into a wash machine and pouring a jug of household ammonia (skull and crossbones prominently displayed) into a tub of ground meat, for what it was. Unfortunately, many others believed Oliver’s gimmick to be an accurate representation of the process by which LFTB is produced. It has been viewed on YouTube more than a million times.
The campaign against BPI pressed on in early March when activist and former lawyer Bettina Siegel filed an online petition at change.org, seeking to have “pink slime” banned from the National School Lunch Program. The petition was created only one day before Jim Avila of ABC News began a series of stories attacking BPI. The series, which has been widely discredited and accused of unfairly smearing BPI by propagating misleading information, drew an average audience of more than 7.5 million viewers. The story is most remarkable in that its traction has been so reliant upon the use of duplicitous information and dysphemisms like “pink slime.”
Avila has been among the most vocal of those leading the charge against BPI’s beef products. His attacks have devastated BPI and led to an operational suspension at three of its four plants. Lacking any science-based evidence, and with BPI products having no history of causing even a single illness, the campaign against the company exposes a disconcerting trend by major media outlets to forsake factual, unbiased reporting in favor of tabloid sensationalism.
BPI has many allies, including prominent food safety advocates like Nancy Donley, who founded the nonprofit organization STOP Foodborne Illness after the death of her only child, Alex, to an E. coli O157:H7 infection. He was 6 years old, and Donley has been a tireless advocate and champion of food safety ever since. Despite this, Avila callously suggested at a recent press conference that Donley’s motives for publicly backing BPI’s food safety record were tied to donations the company had made to her organization.
The visibly shaken Donley replied: “No price can be put on my son’s head. I can’t be bought, and neither can my organization. We represent the victims.”
The media’s continuing tendency to forgo reason and science for the sake of sensationalism is unfortunate and disturbing. And the fallout from this negative campaign against BPI has yet to be fully assessed. At a minimum, an innovative and responsible company with an exemplary food safety record is in peril, as are the jobs of the thousands of men and woman who work for BPI.
What Is Pink Slime?
The term “pink slime,” which refers to lean, finely textured beef, was apparently coined in an email written by former USDA employee Gerald Zirnstein. Zirnstein, not known for his grandiloquence, recently expressed regret over the content of the email, saying “[it] screwed up my career at FSIS.” He left FSIS shortly after his remarks were first made public and now regards the decision to leave “a bad choice,” remarking that he felt as though he “jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.” The internal memo has, however, paid great dividends for media personalities and industry critics, who’ve used its contents to demonize BPI.