On Point: The transparency dilemma

A tough choice between facts now and fallout later.

At this point, anyone who is still trying to make the case on behalf of lean finely textured beef is pretty much talking to himself. As a practical matter, the product no longer exists under that name. It is forevermore the public relations nightmare known as pink slime.

Any facts concerning its wholesomeness, safety or value are irrelevant, as is the fact that many Americans had been eating pink slime in ground beef for years without apparent ill effects. An appalled public declared it revolting; nutritionists called it pet food; supermarkets, fast food operators and school cafeterias pledged not to sell it; retailers who never offered the product boasted of their high standards; a supplier filed for bankruptcy; and a labeling bill was introduced in Congress.

Much fuss has been made about who is to blame for starting the controversy. The list of suspects includes celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, animal rights activists, the news media, social media and the former U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientist who coined the term in a 2002 e-mail to colleagues. He objected to USDA approval of the product, which consists of lean meat separated from beef trimmings and treated with ammonium hydroxide.

None of them are to be faulted, regardless of their motives. They injected new information into the public discourse and the public gagged on the facts as well as the opinions. It is tempting to say that the industry should have been more transparent about the nature of this product, but when you are supplying a food item that the USDA says is perfectly safe why would you think you need to explain yourself? Well, apparently you do and that will be a challenge.

Intelligent transparency will require a lot of hard work and planning on the part of suppliers and retailers and it needs to involve consumers through outreach and education before there is a problem, not after. Most people are intelligent enough to understand many of the compromises necessary to feed a country as large as ours as cheaply as we do. But they’re much more receptive to objective information than to spin or damage control, so “facts up front” should be the guiding principle.

The worst possible response is through so-called “ag-gag” laws, which criminalize the secret recording of what goes on in agricultural production facilities. Such laws, existing in a handful of states and proposed in at least one more, mainly serve to demonstrate that some of our legislators are dumber than the cattle that are being ground into hamburger. First, you simply cannot convince people that something is safe by making it a crime to give them information about it. Second, offering dedicated animal rights activists the opportunity to become martyrs by going to jail for revealing conditions that threaten the health of consumers and their children is, to put it kindly, self-defeating.

So get ready to disclose. The next big issue may be labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms. In light of recent surveys showing large majorities of Americans in favor, the Food and Drug Administration’s contention that labeling is unnecessary because GMO and conventional foods aren’t materially different may not carry any more weight than USDA’s finding that pink slime is safe.

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