By Will Rogers
The press loves to label. When was the last time the media did a story on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy? You probably won’t remember, because for the better part of two decades the media referred to it as “Mad Cow Disease.” And when Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire show to the subject in 1996, it cost the U.S. industry millions of dollars and cost hundreds of people their jobs.
Do you recall the news stories regarding the outbreak of the H1N1 virus in 2009? The media called that the “Swine Flu.” And until USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack pleaded with the media to call the disease by its proper name, domestic sales and exports to Asian markets fell off dramatically due to the false claims that consumers could contract H1N1 through eating pork.
In mid-March of this year the media began filling the airwaves, papers, and internet with news about Lean, Finely Textured Beef (LFTB). But instead of calling the product by its 40 year old industry accepted name, the media labeled it after a term used by a disgruntled United States Department of Agriculture food inspector. He called it “Pink Slime.” Since the story about LFTB aired on ABC news in March, media reports have turned this once innocuous food product into a national food scare.
According to information from various websites, LFTB is described as the following:
It is high in protein. It is low in fat. It has been treated to reduce the risk of food borne illnesses like Salmonella and E. coli. It is tested in a lab to insure the quality and safety before it sent to super markets and restaurants. It is a lean source of protein. And consumers have been enjoying the product for four decades without getting sick or dying from eating it.
For years the USDA has been supplying millions of pounds of LFTB to the national school lunch program, providing children a nutritious source of lean protein. Students have been eating is for years in Sloppy Joes and Hamburgers. Parents were happy that their children were receiving nutritious and safe meals at school. Cash strapped public schools were delighted to use the product because of the quality and costs that LBFT offered.
But all of that changed earlier this year when a series of network broadcasts and internet news stories about LFTB began bringing into question the safety and ethics of including the product in ground beef. Since then, a media firestorm has resulted in grocery stores pulling products that contain LFTB from their shelves, restaurants dropping suppliers, and even some public schools refusing to serve the product. Businesses have lost millions of dollars and hundreds of people have lost their jobs.
As stated earlier in this article, the media likes to label. And the media likes to sensationalize information and events, making them seem to be greater than they actually are. But LFTB isn’t about food safety or health concerns. It is really about public relations.
For several years now, agriculture and more specifically consumption of meat have been under fire from activist groups that want to end what they believe to be the murder of innocent life. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and more radical groups like the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), have been actively promoting an agenda that calls for the end of eating meat and the use of animal based products.
These groups boast large memberships including PETA with over 2 million members, and HSUS with over 11 million members. In comparison, the largest agriculture organization in the United States, the American Farm Bureau Federation, has 6.2 million members. Also PETA, HSUS, and ALF are well financed, tech savvy, have members that are willing to go to jail, and will lie, cheat, and steal to advance their agenda.
In order for farmers and agri-businesses to minimize the impact of these groups, they need to be more proactive toward the concerns facing agriculture. In Iowa, the legislature took the first step this session in protecting farms and animal operations from these types of activists by passing House File 589, which criminalizes the activity of gaining access to a facility by false pretenses or when a person lies on a job application with the intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner.
In addition, they need to establish both high and low tech approaches to promote, educate, and perform outreach to the general consumer, whose opinion can be easily swayed by the tactics of animal rights activists and the media. Also needed is a way to let consumers know that farmers and agribusinesses aren’t just faceless corporations, but that the people that raise and process food for a living are real people.
And finally, Republicans need to stand united with other agricultural groups and business and find common ways to assure the safety and stability of our food and our economy.
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