Summary:

  • In 2012, ABC News framed lean finely textured beef as “pink slime”, creating an irreversible frame that created consumer fear around ground beef
  • A UW-Madison research team explored the effects of this frame
  • Lessons learned for professional food communicators include taking steps to increase transparency, become a trusted source of information, and maintain direct-to-the-public communications channels

The story of pink slime

Lean finely textured beef (LFTB) is a meat by-product used as an additive for ground beef, as a filler, or to reduce the overall fat content of ground beef. In March 2012, ABC released a report about LFTB using the term “pink slime.” This resulted in a ten year low in beef sales and major damage to many major beef manufacutrers. Today, the term “pink slime” is so pervasive that even wikipedia has an entry for “pink slime” but not “lean finely textured beef”.

A science communication research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently released a study titled, “Pink slimed: Media framing of novel food technologies and risk related to ground beef and processed foods in the U.S.” This study examined how the framing of food issues can impact individual risk perceptions.

Research methods

The team used a survey to explore risk perceptions of this issue and randomly assigned respondents to the phrase “pink slime” and “lean finely textured beef”. For example:

  • “How risky is ground beef containing pink slime to you, personally,” vs. “How risky is ground beef containing lean finely textured beef to you, personally.”
  • “How much did you pay attention to news stories about the use of pink slime in hamburger meat?” vs. “How much did you pay attention to news stories about the use of lean finely textured beef in hamburger meat?”

Research results

Results from the survey indicated that the use of the “pink slime” increased risk perception. The media played a strong role in increasing risk perception as well through the use of this frame.

Media attention: More consumers receive information about food technologies from the media (including the news and social media) than the actual companies. The media tends to be more alarmist, increasing risk perception. In the case of LFTB, the media focused on minor, but controversial issues surrounding beef.

Frames: The context in which an issue or communication is presented is a frame. Researchers define frames as “Visual and terminological tools used to help audiences interpret or contextualize an issue.” ACB News’ term “pink slime” was a negative frame imposed on LTFB.

The study also demonstrated that consumers desire naturalness when it comes to food. When ABC News portrayed the manufacutring on LFTB, it was perceived as altered and unnatural, increasing consumers’ risk perception.

What we learned

Here’s a few steps food companies can take to weather a food scare:

  1. Increase transparency. Tell the story before the media has a chance to tell if for you. This will allow you to control the frames used to contextualize your product. A major contributor to the “pink slime” scare was that most consumers were seeing the production of LFTB for the first time.
  2. Become a trusted source of information. Actively provide information through public sources about your practices and the industry to establish your organization as a trustworthy source of information. You can accomplish this through social media, a website or blog, or online resource centers. Consumers will be more likely to listen to you during a food scare. On the other side, lower trust in food organizations is related to higher risk perception.
  3. Maintain direct-to-the-public routes of communication. During the LFTB food scare, none of the affected companies had public accounts on social media sites, where the conversation around this food scare was acutally happening. Maintaining active and trusted social media accounts will ensure you’re a part of the conversation if a food scare happens.