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Business Columnists

Food facts get slimed by turn of a phrase

| Thursday, March 29, 2012

Just think up a sickening enough phrase -- "pink slime" comes to mind -- and you can throw a lot of people out of work. Not to mention the company that employs them.

Case in point: Beef Products Inc., a South Dakota company with decades of good repute in the food processing industry.

Somehow, though, BPI caught the attention of people who hate the company, or hate meat, or maybe food in general. Or just love a sensational news story.

For whatever reason, the enemies took to publicly calling one of the company's main products "pink slime."

Not exactly appetizing. See it on a menu and it's a safe bet you'll get up and leave in a hurry. Find out that it's served in school cafeterias, you'll give a parental piece of your mind to the board of education.

That's all you need, that ugly name. A false name, too, in this case. There's nothing factually slimy about what the company itself calls "lean, finely textured beef." The company has made it for years from a slaughterhouse's fatty beef trimmings. It's a federally approved additive to hamburger meat. Fat-reduced, heat-treated and exposed to ammonium hydroxide, a bacteria killer, it tends in fact to retard food germs like e. coli.

In recent weeks, though, a media blitz spearheaded by ABC News and picked up by other news-spreaders -- how could they ignore it• -- has attacked "pink slime" so vigorously that supermarket chains and fast-food eateries did what comes naturally to free enterprise. They announced they'll not use that stuff in their ground meat. Losing their meat customers is a natural no-no.

Luckily, Beef Products Inc. is a privately-held, family owned, company. Had it been public, you might not have been able to look low enough for its stock price.

Which doesn't mean a price hasn't been exacted. BPI said it will suspend output of the stuff at three plants, laying off 200 workers at each place. But talk about social responsibility, all affected workers will receive full pay and benefits for 60 days.

Eldon Roth founded BPI in the 1970s and still heads the firm. He took out an ad in the Wall Street Journal last week to vent the outrage of an industrial Pearl Harbor. A "campaign of lies and deceit," he said, evidently has "a clear goal to put BPI out of business." Not a single food-borne illness, he said, has been traced to the besmirched product in 30 years of production -- 300 billion meals -- yet 3,000 jobs are in peril. "We have never produced 'pink slime,' " said Roth.

A check of reactions on the Internet turned up vigorous, indeed angry, support of the company from industry associations that have seen beef markets shrink from diet fads and anti-meat propaganda.

"TV news loves a health scare," said one food reporter who blamed the company mainly for a public relations lapse -- not getting itself ready for a surprise attack. The awful image of "pink slime" was attributed to whistle-blowers with a grievance against BPI or somebody at the Department of Agriculture.

The entire episode illustrates the potency of a image-making. Imagine if milk were labeled a "bovine glandular excretion." Or a newspaper, that excellent enterprise, demeaned as "pressed forest mash." Nobody's safe from a phrase.

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