I have yet to meet anyone in the media who would falsely malign a perfectly good cheeseburger. Yet somehow it happened, according to AFA Foods Inc., which filed bankruptcy on Monday, blaming the media.
What the beef industry calls "lean, finely textured beef," food critics have been calling "pink slime." And the media, always hot after headlines and sound bites, have been going with pink slime.
The beef industry might have handled this situation by replacing the term "lean, finely textured beef" with something like "meat smoothie" or "hamburger slurpee." Instead, it chose to keep a name that sounds as unappetizing as "cafeteria meatloaf special," and is now defending it with a silly, new slogan.
"Let's call this product what it is and let 'pink slime' become a term of the past," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said last week.
He was one of a group of five governors and lieutenant governors from five meat-processing states who were touring a meat-packing plant in South Sioux City, Neb. Together they rolled out the new slogan, "Dude, it's beef."
This may be only a modest improvement over the term, pink slime. Whenever anyone begins a premise with the word, "dude," they are trying so hard to convince you of something that you have to wonder if they are stoned.
The new term came too late for King of Prussia, Pa.-based AFA now that the meat grinder has had to file Chapter 11.
"Ongoing media attention has called into question the wholesomeness" and "dramatically reduced the demand for all ground beef products," AFA's interim Chief Executive Ron Allen said in filing Chapter 11.
AFA is owned by Yucaipa Cos., run by billionaire Ron Burkle. It has about 850 employees and annual revenues of $958 million -- all threatened by what some governors and industry leaders are calling a misinformation campaign.
I don't want to parse the debate over the safety of this product any more than the debate over whether salt is good or bad for you. But the ruckus is shutting operations across the land. Beef Products Inc., owner of the plant where the governors met, has closed three plants and temporarily laid off 650 people.
But should these hard times be blamed on the media, or on the companies that insist on peddling an unappealing product? "Dude, it's beef" includes mechanically separated connective tissues and trimmings from near the hide, which are more likely to be exposed to fecal matter. "Dude, it's beef" is treated with an ammonia solution to kill any unwanted E. coli bacteria. Then "Dude, it's beef" is mixed into a better batch of ground beef. (And, dude, "I can't believe it's not butter.")
The industry says the process is safe, but most consumers don't spray their meat with Windex before tossing it on a grill. And "Dude it's beef," while approved by the Food and Drug Administration, is never served by itself because, dude, that would be so gross.
McDonalds, Burger King and Taco Bell have said they will no longer use "Dude, it's beef." Wendy's has said it has never used "Dude, it's beef" because it didn't meet its quality standards. Grocery chains from Safeway to Food Lion have dumped "Dude, it's beef" as well.
Kroger recently put out a press release saying that it listens to customers: "Our customers have expressed their concerns that...lean finely textured beef...is something they do not want in their ground beef."
It's just that simple: If you want to stay in the food business, you better sell customers what they want to eat. Yet, instead of accommodating consumer demands, the beef industry has alleged that some dudes were manipulated by the media. Then it held a press conference to manipulate the media, itself.
Slipping lower-quality cuts of meat into cheeseburgers while wearing a "Dude, it's beef" T-shirt is not a viable business strategy. Or as they say over at AFA, Dude, it's bankruptcy.
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at firstname.lastname@example.org or tellittoal.com)