By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
When traditional and online news outlets exploded with reports of "pink slime" in ground beef in the spring of 2012, consumers were faced with decisions on their ground beef purchases.
With regards to lean finely textured beef, popularly referred to as pink slime, consumers were swayed by what meat industry advocates describe as incomplete reporting.
"They allowed the slant of what they heard in the news or online to determine their position," said Danette Amstein, a principal with Midan Marketing, a full-service marketing firm focused on the meat industry.
"This was most unfortunate not only for BPI (an LFTB manufacturer that ended up shuttering three of its plant) but for the entire meat industry," she said.
But the industry can learn from how the LFTB issues played out, she said.
Last October, Midan Marketing conducted an online survey of consumers to gauge their knowledge, sentiment and actions regarding LFTB.
The survey found 68 percent of consumers were concerned with the product and didn't believe factual statement about the safety and use of the product. Further information and explanation, however, did a good job of easing their concerns.
Overall concerns with the product were eased in 52 percent of those respondents when they were given more information. Forty-nine percent said their concerns were eased because they had more information, and 15 percent said it was because LFTB is safer than they thought.
Fifty-seven percent said their concerns were eased after finding out LFTB is 100 percent beef from trimmings off roasts and steaks; 56 percent said their concerns were eased after learning about the separation process of beef and fat; and 56 percent said their concerns were eased after learning that ammonia in the process is used to kill bacteria and is found naturally in all proteins - plant or animal.
The survey's information on what consumers initially found believable and the difference in attitudes with more information is a good starting point for building issues-management plans, Amstein said.
The power of the media, especially social media, is a lesson the meat industry should take seriously. The issue came to the attention of ABC News through forwarded Twitter postings.
BPI could have been made aware of the issue before ABC came calling had someone in the industry been monitoring social media and given the company a heads up, she said.
"When you have a finger on the pulse, it's easier to get out in front of issues," she said.
The industry needs to use social media to be proactive, transparent, passionate and persuasive, and encourage dialogue, she said.
"Don't wait to put out key messages when an issue breaks," she said.
While the industry can't go back and change how the LFTB story unfolded, it can build alliances to stem the effects of potential issues that are sure to come, she said.
Consumers are looking for transparency, passion and an emotional connection. The meat industry's preference for scientific sound bites doesn't meet any of those consumer needs. While science has its place, the industry needs to tell its story in a much more engaging way.
"Fact plus passion can be a very strong influencer," she said.
A presence on the web, Facebook and Twitter need to be in place well ahead of an issue to help diffuse it before it becomes a firestorm, she said. The industry needs to educate employees and customers and engage consumers, so all know there is a conduit in place to get answers.
"So when something happens, they think of you first and come for your input," she said.