Pink Slime: A Lesson in Crisis Management

The term “pink slime” continues to dominate news desks across the country.  Public backlash against processors of “lean finely textured beef” has pushed one of the largest ground beef processors in the United States, AFA, into bankruptcy.  Other companies such as Beef Products, Inc. (BPI) have halted production and are scrambling to save the business.  The devastating effect of the “pink slime” controversy is particularly interesting because the primary issue is not food safety.  Some of the most outspoken critics seem less focused on the safety of the product (which many proclaim to be safe), and more on the lack of public disclosure regarding use of lean finely textured beef in the ground beef we consume. In other words, consumers are upset because they didn’t know they (or their children) were consuming something called “pink slime.”

This is the ultimate p.r. nightmare. Crisis management has long been a hot topic in the food and beverage industry.  Why?  The rather simple explanations: (1) the explosion of social media; (2) the FDA’s improved communication of recalls and the public accessibility to FDA reports and information; (3) a more health-conscious and food-educated public… The list goes on.

Many companies in the food industry do not have a crisis management plan or social media strategy in place, and are forced into reactive mode when bad news goes public.  But even for those that do, the “pink slime” campaign is particularly challenging.  After all, most companies stand by the safety and quality of their product and are prepared to address the public in a sensible way in response to an isolated contamination event or recall.  In those situations, the crisis team is dealing with an identifiable problem.  And while a contamination event will have consumer backlash, the prevailing thought is to isolate the problem and restore consumer confidence.  But with “pink slime,” there is no isolated event – no outbreak, no contamination event, no bodily injuries.  In this case, the meat industry is dealing with raw emotion, unconnected to a specific event that the meat industry can “fix,” i.e. admit to a mistake, recall the product, decontaminate the plant, compensate customers for injuries, issue public apologies and ensure a safer product.  Here, BPI and AFA are dealing with a mix of consumer confusion, anger, mistrust, fear and hesitation, whether justified or not.  In the words of Malcolm Gladwell, “emotion is contagious.”

So how does the industry respond?  There is no right answer, but as you can see from this full page ad (WSJ Ad), BPI is fighting passionately to combat negative public perception.  The  food and insurance industries would be well-served to monitor the situation closely and use “pink slime” as a case study.  A crisis management plan may look good on paper, but its true worth is in the execution. Situations like this provide companies an opportunity to simulate a public relations crisis and put their plan to the test.  Put yourself in BPI’s shoes and think about how you would handle the situation.  As the old saying goes, failing to plan is planning to fail.

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Cozen O’Connor has a national team of attorneys experienced in handling food contamination and product recall coverage matters related to first-party, third-party and specialty policies. The firm also developed a Food, Beverage & Nutritional Products Industry Team to provide advice and counsel to a wide range of companies connected directly and indirectly to the food and beverage industry.
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