This week’s assignment invited students to analyse the rhetoric of a public claim and check the facts. The issue I picked was a very popular petition on Change.org (and related media) to encourage the United States Department of Agriculture to stop using a certain kind of beef product in school lunches.
Exploring the issue involved:
- Learning about different kinds of meat processing
- Studying recent history of food safety concerns
- Reading 10-15 articles, and watching several videos
- Reading USDA food certification records
- Learning about the US National School Lunch programme
- Tracing claims through the churn cycle of news media to find to find the original source
- Trying, unsuccessfully, to reach various people in the press as well as the source for a claim
- Figuring out the agenda of various sources, whether trade magazines or activists
- Deciding how deep to go into an issue when fact checking. At a surface level, a lot of claims appear very flimsy. Verifying a claim in the news is especially difficult when something has little evidence to support it. One feels drawn to prove or disprove something that might not be proveable.
Checking facts is really hard work. Not a lot of it can be split up or optimised. Here are some thoughts:
- Tools like Churnalism.com can help fact-checkers identify sources. One can imagine a similar version which could track a quote through media to find the earliest case.
- It would be awesome to be able to know the origin or funders of a website when you’re looking at it.
- Part of fact-checking involves doing back-of-the-envelope thought experiments to evaluate the feasibility of a claim. These could be handed off to someone else.
- At Texperts, we employed a large team of expert web researchers with a variety of complementary research competencies. A similar distributed team of workers could be very effective at fact-checking.
- If they are able to attract enough interest, Hypothes.is offers a fascinating model for social annotation of things that people mistrust or want to check
My Article: Is Pink Slime Going to Kill Us All?
Has “pink slime” invaded the American food supply, where it is spreading bacteria and contributing to malnutrition? Does 70% of all American supermarket beef contain this allegedly harmful substance? Or is this just a food scare created by activists who have been irresponsible with the facts?
A recent Change.org petition by children’s food blogger Bettina Elias Siegel has received over two hundred thousand signatures in a week’s time. Bettina is urging the United States Department of Agriculture, who purchase food for the National School Lunch Program, to stop buying meat pcontaining “boneless lean beef trimmings,” primarily produced by the company Beef Products.
In this post, I’m doing three things. Firstly, I’m going to analyse the rhetoric used by “pink slime” campaigners to get mechanically recovered beef off the menu. Secondly, I’m going to look into the context of the issue. Finally, I’m going to investigate Bettina’s claim that 70% of all supermarket beef includes so-called pink slime.
Understanding the Campaign Rhetoric
Looking at the Change.org petition and Bettina’s blog, here are some of the prominent persuasive tactics deployed by the campaign:
- Control the language: “pink slime” is much easier and more interesting to write than “ammonia-treated lean beef trimmings.” It’s also a terrifying notion, one which is very likely to collect a high number of clicks.
- A disgusting photo on the change.org petition features regular ground beef rather than “lean beef trimmings.” It’s the basic ground beef photo on Wikipedia, and it is often reused by “pink slime” activists. The other frequently-used image appears to be of chicken, not beef. Actual photos of “pink slime” look more appealing.
- Obvious bad guy: The “Pink Slime” campaign has a single target: Beef Products Inc.
- Simple change: In addition to convincing supermarkets and fast food companies to give up lean beef trimmings, this petition calls on the USDA to stop purchasing it.
- Appeal to instinctive disgust: The petition goes further than using the language of “slime.” It argues, “it is simply wrong to feed our children…scraps that were, in the past, destined for use in pet food.”
- Please think of the children: It’s easier to convince the USDA to stop purchasing lean beef trimmings than it is to convince them to rate the product as unsafe. Since the USDA does the school lunch program purchasing, it’s perfectly appropriate to ask us to think of the children. It also happens to be an incredibly powerful persuasive tactic.
- The fact they’re hiding from you: Betinna and others often repeat the claim that “70% of the nation’s ground beef” contains pink slime. By citing a number of that size, activists convince us that we, too, should care.
The backstory of this issue can be found a December 2009 New York Times article by investigations reporter Michael Moss which exposed broad lack of testing by the USDA of ammonia-treated meat, a lack of testing which led to cases of e. coli and salmonella in the food supply. Moss’s article, The Burger That Shattered Her Life went on to win a Pulitzer for Explanatory Reporting.
Looking over the USDA’s Advanced Meat Recovery documents, the story of lean beef trimmings has been an ongoing cycle of testing the wrong thing and trying to correct oversights. In the 1990s, Advanced Meat Recovery techniques were developed to reduce the amount of bone included in meat extracted from scraps down to levels safe for human consumption. AMR did this successfully. Then there were concerns around spinal tissue in the scraps, which led to a new set of tests. More recent are concerns around the use of ammonia to increase the alkalinity of the meat, killing bacteria. If the ammonia gets too low or the system stops working, bacteria can get into the food supply, especially where lean beef trimmings are mixed with other meat.
70%: how a speculation becomes fact
Bettina and others point to a report by ABC news that 70% of ground beef in supermarkets contains “pink slime.” It’s a number I have seen repeated frequently by campaigners. Where does this “fact” come from? ABC cites former USDA researcher Gerald Zirnstein, who coined the term “pink slime” in 2002 and opposed USDA approval.
Zirnstein offers no evidence to support his claim, and he’s been gone from the USDA since at least 2004. Nevertheless, Zirnstein’s figure has been quoted in The Huffington Post, Fox News, Mashable, the New York Times, The Daily Beast, Yahoo, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, and CNN.
Zirnstein could not be reached for comment. ABC did not respond to emails or tweets.
The Beef industry has started to push back. Beef Daily, a beef industry blog by Penton Media, has called pink slime a myth. Beef Products Inc has created the website Pink Slime is a Myth, featuring informational blog posts and video interviews which explain the process of making Lean Beef Trimmings. The American Meat Institute, a meat and poultry trade organisation, has created the website Meat MythCrushers, which also features informational videos, resource guides, and information from food industry experts. The American Meat Institute has also posted a Questions and Answers PDF. Meat industry supporters have also tried to rally opposition through the #pinkslimeisamyth hashtag on Twitter, to limited effect.
Unsuccessful back of the envelope calculation: Is pink slime as widespread as critics claim? Whole Foods and Costco do not stock it at all. Organic labeled beef does not include it. Let’s do some math. USDA regulations require that no more than 15% of ground beef contain “pink slime.” The total US beef consumption in 2010 was 26.4 billion pounds. BPI produces 7 million pounds of product a week, for an annual total of 364 million pounds a year. According to the USDA, the US exports 2.3 billion pounds of beef a year. According to an Oklahoma State University brochure….. (at this point, I had to stop because it appears to be impossible to know how much ground beef is sold annually in the US).
Should we be worried?
The real dangers here seem to be e. coli and salmonella, both of which can be killed by properly cooking your food. Although food including lean beef trimmings will be much less tasty and nutritious, there doesn’t seem to be any immediate health risk for adults or children.
More broadly, the inclusion of lean beef trimmings into other meat offers a worrisome potential for contamination, especially if companies continue to enjoy the level of immunity from testing and labeling which the New York Times revealed in 2009.