Danger vs. Hysteria — “Pink Slime” & Medical Errors (and a Guest Post)


My friend Mike Thelen, who works in the dairy industry, has a guest post I'm going to publish next week talking about the seemingly unfounded hysteria over so-called “pink slime” that has been in the news recently. I was nauseated when I first heard about this “problem,” but it's started to seem like a bunch of ginned up media hype. It might seem unappetizing, but not necessarily unsafe, if you see the facts.

Why does this gross-sounding pink slime get so much attention (ratings?) while the crisis of preventable medical errors gets so little attention unless a celebrity's babies are harmed? So I made this graphic. Please feel free to share via social medial.

Collected data (with sources) on the patient safety and quality crisis.

Updated April 3, 2012… I was going to do this as a separate guest post, but decided to incorporate it here:

Mark's Note: This guest post is by a long-time friend of the blog, Mike Thelen. He has a food-industry perspective on the latest hubbub about so-called “pink slime” that you've probably heard about in the news. Are there any health risks or just a bunch of media hype?

By Mike Thelen:  When is “respect for people” not enough?

“In God we trust, all others bring data…” (Dr. W. Edwards Deming)

Recent headlines have splashed the term “Pink Slime” all over the internet and newspapers.   What happens when media outlets fail to provide data, simply choosing to use sensationalism and fear-mongering to voraciously grab ratings?   A viable product alternative is lost, as well as 3,000 US jobs.

BPI (Beef Products Incorporated), a leader in this ultra-lean beef product has a history of respect for people.   From Eldon Roth, President and CEO: “NEVER has a foodborne illness been associated with our lean beef for over 30 years. In nearly 300,000,000,000 meals, we have been a recognized leader in food safety by groups such as the International Association for Food Protection. Look at the overwhelming support from food scientists, USDA officials, Consumer Advocate organizations, academia and customers we have received reaffirming the wholesomeness, nutrition and safety of our lean beef (http://www.beefisbeef.com).”   30 years!   Defect-free product provided to the customer for 30 years.   Can other product manufacturers make similar claims?

In support of the BPI CEO's claim, the following is quoted from a Vice President in a food industry, not related to beef production:

The recent brouhaha surrounding the ‘pink slime' issue has shown what can happen when public opinion is wrongly influenced by opportunistic ‘journalists' and so-called consumer advocates.   This product, manufactured mostly by BPI and Cargill, is nothing more than trimmings left over when slicing beef into various cuts.   They are not scraps off of the floor, or inedible pieces originally destined for dog food.   They are meat and fat that is spun down in a centrifuge to remove all but about 4% of the fat.   Because ground beef is naturally susceptible to bacterial contamination, the spun trimmings are treated with ammonium hydroxide to raise the pH which inhibits bacterial growth.   Ammonium hydroxide is widely used in various foods throughout the world, and is considered  GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe)  by the FDA.   It is used in the meat industry to help kill potentially deadly bacterial such as E. coli O157:H7.   Contrary to some stories, it is not the same substance used for fertilizer or to clean your house.   But, as a result of this adverse publicity, BPI has suspended operations at three of its four plants leading to the loss of over 3,000 jobs.

3000 jobs!   3000 jobs will be sacrificed, in the incredibly slow recovery from one of the largest economic downturns this country has faced.   Why?   Because fear-mongering and targeted attacks by media, without sufficient fact-finding, has driven the uneducated consumer into such a frenzy as to destroy a perfectly acceptable, marketable product.   Remember, this is approximately 96%-97% LEAN BEEF.  Now, the company that has always had the consumer in mind from a Safety and Quality perspective will be terminating 3000 employees – not from a lack of respect from company leadership, but from a lack of respect in the journalistic community.

Does BPI really care about the customer and community?   Do they REALLY demonstrate respect for people?   Here's what Nancy Donley, Founder and President of  STOP Foodborne Illness, has to say: “One of the many plants I visited was Beef Products, Inc. I got to know the owners, Eldon and Regina Roth, and was impressed by their complete commitment to the safety and wholesomeness of the meat products they produced. I was also impressed by the food safety culture they instilled throughout their company. We shed tears together over what happened to Alex and realized how we share the common goal of preventing illness and death from foodborne pathogens. Ever since that moment, BPI has generously supported STOP and has never asked for anything in return.”   I highly suggest people read Nancy's story.   To summarize it, her 6-year-old son died from eating E. coli contaminated beef in 1993.   If she believes in BPI, I can't fathom why others wouldn't do the same.

Is BPI pursuing a Lean culture?   I don't know.   I've never visited one of their facilities.   Do they seem to honor the same beliefs?   I can comfortably answer yes, an opinion developed through information provided from the individuals referenced above, as well as conversations with individuals in the beef industry, economic development community, and other food industries.

The question I find myself asking is: is there a new ‘customer' player that we must be concerned with in the Lean community?   The traditional four are: buying customer, shareholders, employees and communities where we exist.   Is there now a new, terrifying customer called “social media” who doesn't care about facts, doesn't consume the product, doesn't invest in the product, and doesn't concern itself with the community it may negatively affect?

There is a Facebook group called “People for the Truth” and a website  www.beefisbeef.com.   The group has petitions there, but more importantly, I encourage all of us to simply learn more.   Destroying good, undeserving companies, with core beliefs similar to those in our Lean community, will not be positive for any community.

Author's note: While in a food industry (dairy), I am not, nor do I have any ties to BPI, nor am I or any of my immediate family in any way connected to BPI or the beef industry.   I did, however, grow up on a farm in South Dakota and currently reside in Iowa, where agriculture/livestock is the primary economy.

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  1. Anonymous says

    The story about pink slime (I’m still not sure which side is more correct) and other news stories make me realize why lean is so tough to make happen. It really flies in the face of our modern culture.

    Lean teaches us to:

    Supposed to seek first to understand
    Go to the gemba (the actual place)
    Not jump to conclusions
    Look at data
    Be rational

    I don’t see much of that going on in DC or on the TV news channels or mainstream/lamestream (depending on how you view them) media.

    The U.S. is an increasingly hysteria-prone society driven by emotion and what “our side” believes. Watch Fox News and MSNBC and there are two realities and two versions of the truth. This is not good. I’m afraid that if CNN reported there was a witch in Masschusetts, that a mob would go burn her.

    1. Mark Graban says

      There is similar food hysteria about a gross-sounding “natural” coloring in some Starbucks beverages.


      It’s safe, but sounds gross. Better to have people informed, I guess – including the fact that the drinks are no longer vegan?

      I agree that much of the political news anymore consists of hysteria rather than anything really informative.

  2. […] Pink slime bankruptcy: After the backlash, what’s next for beef? (follow up to this post) […]

  3. Mark Graban says

    To everybody who has commented so far, I appended the post with what was originally going to be a separate guest post by Mike Thelen.

  4. Medshop Equipment says

    I agree with the insanity of the fear mongering that happens when the media gets hold of things. I think that people should be informed about the products that they are eating, no matter how gross it is, and the truth should be exposed. However if its safe and healthy and just the idea of it is gross that should be up to the public to decide. I recently learned that they dye tuna as well. If they catch it and its a bad color they can treat it so it lasts longer and the color is more of a bubble gum pink then its natural color. I think we would all be shocked if we could see what all our food looks like WITHOUT food coloring. Its like the Wizard of Oz before Dorothy is in the Land of OZ and everything becomes color and bright!

  5. […] hasn’t quite reached the level of hysteria as “pink slime,” but I’ve seen an inordinate amount of attention being given to the issue of […]

  6. […] wrote about the so-called “pink slime” scare a few weeks back. That whole episode isn’t a great example of scientific problem solving on a […]

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