"Pink Slime" Gets Second Chance for Explanation

The meat additive nicknamed "pink slime" is making a comeback as beef prices rise, giving the meat industry a second chance to make a better first impression.If you add chemicals to your product, be prepared to answer questions from consumers, regulators and the news media.

That's advice from Ron Hanser, head of a Des Moines, Iowa-based PR firm that works with agribusiness clients and was interviewed by NPR for a story this summer about "pink slime." (Hanser & Associates was a partner along with CFM in the former Pinnacle Worldwide network). 

"Pink slime" was the inadvertent and unfortunate nickname given to a meat byproduct added to hamburger to make it stretch further. The nickname, which was coined offhandedly by a meat inspector, betrayed the product's origin as meat trimmings. The butchering leftovers were treated with citric acid to kill bacteria.

As the name caught on in the media, consumers reacted, prompting fast food restaurants and grocery chains to reject products containing what Cargill and other meat producers referred to as "lean, finely textured beef."

That was 2012, when ground beef cost $2.50 per pound. With beef prices on the rise — ground beef now averages $4 per pound, "pink slime" may be making a comeback. This time, its makers are better prepared to talk about it.

Meat processors are also in court pressing a defamation suit against ABC News for its use of the term, which processors say led to plant closures and layoffs by implying "pink slime" was unsafe.

Hanser's advice is the better path to follow. It wasn't just the term "pink slime" and icky pictures on TV that turned consumers' stomachs; it was the lack of proper labeling. People didn't know this stuff was being added to what they were buying.

Cargill and others have learned that lesson and now label products that contain the additive. But Hanser's advice suggests going further. Tell consumers why it's added to stretch product and hold down costs. Explain why the chemical bath in citric acid ensures consumer safety and doesn't affect the quality or taste of the meat.

This kind of engagement won't put every fear to rest, but it will remove the biggest fear of all — that meat processors and retailers aren't telling the whole story about a product with chemicals.

As Hanser says, talking is better than stonewalling or being tone deaf about consumer concerns.

PR adviser Ron Hanser urges agribusiness clients to talk to consumers if they add chemicals to their products. There will still be questions, but less fear of stonewalling.