116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
By The Des Moines Register
Many been having a lot of fun with the “pink slime” story, if only because the moniker attached to the hamburger filler conjures up a humorous while repulsive image. But the humor is lost on 650 packing-plant workers in Iowa, Kansas and Texas who have lost their jobs because of the story.
A story that otherwise might have run out of steam as facts countered hysteria has instead escalated to the point where the beef industry has taken a serious economic body blow. Consumers apparently spooked by the controversy steered away from hamburger containing the product, and the packers that produced it may have permanently closed their plants.
The net effect: A legitimate and safe food product may be removed from the food supply. Ironically consumers now have one less option and could see higher meat prices and hamburger with more fat content.
If that's what they want, that's fine. But the public should at least know why it happened and who or what to blame.
The lesson for farmers and food processors is that, in today's environment, any one of them can be similarly slimed. Rather than attack the critics, they should counter falsehood with fact and use popular social-media tools to tell their story. But ultimately the consumer will decide what the food marketplace will look like, and the industry will have to adjust accordingly.
The uproar over what the beef industry prefers to call “lean, finely textured beef” caused school lunch programs and some grocery chains to drop hamburger containing the product. The beef industry and supporters went into war mode, condemning everything from the “media” to a malicious campaign of misinformation by beef haters. Gov. Terry Branstad at one point called for a Congressional investigation.
This reaction came on the heels of the Iowa Legislature passing a bill that makes it a crime for applicants to misrepresent their real reasons for wanting to be hired by an animal confinement operation. The bill was a version of an earlier effort to bar surreptitious recordings showing how animals are treated, but the bill sent the same message: Iowa lawmakers are prepared to make it a crime to report the truth about what happens inside hog barns and chicken cages.
This punitive approach will only create suspicion that the industry has something to hide and make food critics and animal-rights groups even more determined to see for themselves what's going on.
The better response is for the industry itself to open its doors to the public. If what they are doing is in keeping with the best standards of animal welfare, and in the best interest of consumers' health, they should have nothing to fear.
Still, some people may not like what they see - such as the image of chickens packed tightly into small cages, pigs that live their entire lives jammed into metal confinement buildings and sows that are confined to gestation crates to protect piglets. Producers have explained the economic and humane reasons for these practices, but increasingly animal-rights groups and the public have prevailed in getting national grocery and restaurant chains to insist on changes.
The critic finds sympathy among people who have no concept of how food is produced. What happens in modern commercial food production and food processing operations is the same thing that has happened since humankind transitioned from hunter-gatherers to farmers. Public squeamishness with that reality is at odds with the expectation that food be plentiful, cheap and readily available on their grocery shelves and at their favorite restaurants.
The vast majority of us rely on mass production of food that is affordable and plentiful because of efficiencies made possible by the industrialization of agriculture and food processing. When the industry is forced to change its processes, it necessarily becomes less efficient. That affects the supply and price of food.
That may be a tradeoff consumers are willing to make. If not, they should let their voices be heard to counter campaigns of misinformation and unrealistic expectations about the realities of modern agriculture.