The general public got its first glimpse of "finely textured meat" (aka pink slime) almost a year ago, when Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution on ABC raised the issue with moms in a Los Angeles school district, but since then the hue and cry against the ammonia-treated filler has beent aken over by parents and nutritional advocates using, deftly, the free social media tools at their disposal.
The issue certainly caught the eye of Houston resident Bettina Siegel, who writes about kids and food on her blog, The Lunch Tray. Siegel posted a petition on Change.org on March 6th, rallying support to lobby Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to “put an immediate end to the use of ‘pink slime’ in our children’s school food.”
By the next day, more than 220,000 names had been added, rare for the site which launches 10,000 petitions on average each month. "It was incredible," said Brianna Cayo Cotter, communications director of Change.org, regarding Siegel’s petition. "In 10 days she made the USDA, the meat industry and major retailers all back away from it. Now the demand for pink slime has dropped so dramatically that some of the factories are starting to shut down."
Google searches for “pink slime” rose dramatically and more than 1,470 videos appeared on YouTube which finally pushed reports on ABC News and other national media outlets on the USDA’s purchase of "finely textured meat products" that included pink slime for school lunches.
“Issues can to go from a simmer to an explosion when content with broad interest – such as food safety – is picked up and disseminated by widely connected people, said Marc A. Smith, director of the Social Media Research Foundation. These people act like “broadcast hubs,” dispersing the information to different communities,”
“What’s happening is that the channels whereby this flood can go down this hill have expanded,” Smith said “The more there are things like Twitter, the easier it is for these powder kegs to explode.”
This week, Beef Products Inc. has closed (at least temporarily) three of its four plants after McDonald's, Walmart (which is offering consumers a choice), the National School Lunch Program, Kroger, Safeway, Supervalu and Food Lion and a slew of other retailers promised to reduce or eliminate pink slime from their products, bowing to pressure from the public as seen in this video report.
Other successful gastronomic social media campaigns include Amazon.com and whale meat, Wal-Mart and genetically modified sweet corn, and McDonald's buying eggs from battery-caged chickens.
"It's definitely a good thing, and it is harnessing this incredible energy and desire for social change, tapping into the current ethos of the Occupy movement," said Naomi Starkman, manager of communications for environmental and food policy campaigns in the Tribune. "When consumers can participate online, it gives them a tool to make a difference that they don't feel they have other than their pocketbooks."
Purveyors of pink slime are also leveraging social media. Beef Product Inc., has launched a website, pinkslimeisamyth.com, to rebut criticism and misinformation, while the National Meat Association is arguing that ammonium hydroxide is used in baked goods, puddings and other processed foods.
NMA CEO Barry Carpenter has visited BPI plants and says critics don’t have the facts. “It’s one of those things. It’s the aesthetics of it that just gets people’s attention,” Carpenter said in the Herald. “And in this case, it’s not even legitimate aesthetics of it. It’s a perception of what it is.”
Proving the issue had gone from outraged parents (including Jamie Oliver, let's not forget) to mainstream media: Jon Stewart's scathing takedown on The Daily Show this week.