While we can’t predict the next public-relations crisis in animal agriculture, we can learn from past experiences and perhaps stamp out the spark before it becomes a firestorm. At last week’s Cattle Feeders Business Summit hosted by Merck Animal Health in Denver, several speakers outlined efforts to avert or manage these issues, with several saying the industry is better prepared than ever to do so.

Case study in crisis communicationsThe case of lean, finely textured beef (LFTB) serves as a classic example of an issue that quickly spun out of control, and as an opportunity to learn how to prevent similar crises in the future. Danette Amstein, co-founder of Midan Marketing in Statesville, North Carolina, described her company’s research into the LFTB issue during the fall of 2012, several months after the media storm subsided.

Midan Marketing surveyed a national sample of meat eaters regarding their perceptions of LFTB and tested communications strategies and messages on a smaller sample of consumers. Not surprisingly, the survey showed a high level of awareness of the issue, but also significant misperceptions.

Among the respondents, 28 percent had heard of LFTB, while 81 percent had heard of “pink slime.” That result leads to one of Amstein’s first recommendations to the industry, which is to use caution and common sense in the terminology we use, even when communicating within the industry. The “pink slime” term reportedly originated with USDA scientists, but once it escaped into conventional and social media, the damage was done.

When researchers asked consumers to define LFTB, 29 percent described the product as processed scraps or parts, 18 percent said it is filler and 14 percent said they didn’t know. Interestingly, none of them defined it as beef.

Of the respondents, 68 percent said they were concerned about the product and 36 percent were very concerned. As for specific concerns, 18 percent believed LFTB would affect their health, 12 percent said it is not real meat, 9 percent said the name sounds bad and another 9 percent said they felt deceived by the product.

As for the issue of the ammonium hydroxide used to control pathogens during LFTB production, only 7 percent of respondents brought it up unaided, but after some explanation of the process, 27 percent said it was their top concern.

Actual changes in behavior were mixed, with 38 percent of respondents saying they did nothing out of the ordinary in response to LFTB coverage, while 33 percent checked if their store used it and 34 percent looked up information on LFTB. Fourteen percent moved to natural or organic ground beef, 8 percent switched stores and 8 percent stopped purchasing ground beef.

Presented with a set of true or false statements about LFTB, consumers showed a high level of awareness but also a high frequency of misconceptions. Forty two percent, for example, believed LFTB is not beef and 55 percent believed the product is not safe.

In another phase of the study, researchers provided consumers with an objective, factual statement describing how LFTB is produced. The statement described how the process separates lean beef from fat in trimmings from steaks and roasts, and how utilization of the lean beef from trimmings reduces waste and resource use in beef production while keeping beef accessible and affordable for consumers. The statement also described how a small amount of ammonium hydroxide is used to prevent bacterial contamination during the production process, and how the treatment is FDA-approved, safe, used in other foods and that ammonia occurs naturally in proteins.

The researchers found that while all the information in the statement was factual, some messages resonated better than others with consumers. For example, 47 percent of respondents did not believe information regarding the LFTB production process and how it reduces number of cattle needed to meet beef demand. Fifty two percent did not believe LFTB helps reduce resource use and improves access to lean, affordable beef.

However, 57 percent believed information showing LFTB is 100 percent beef made with trimmings from steaks and roasts, and said the information helped ease their concerns. Fifty six percent responded favorably to messages describing how ammonia prevents contamination with bacteria and occurs naturally in other protein foods, while 69 percent indicated information about FDA approval of the process did not ease their concerns.

Overall 52 percent indicated their concern level dropped after reading the information about LFTB, while 41 percent said their concern level was unchanged and 7 percent became more concerned.

Amstein’s firm offers several recommendations based on their research. First they say, watch for and avoid using terminology such as “pink slime” that the public could perceive as negative. Watch for any indication an issue could become a public-image crisis and respond quickly and proactively with transparent, factual information. The LFTB issue, she says, first emerged on a TV cooking show in January 2012, but went largely unnoticed until April when national news organizations turned it into a major issue.

Finally, she encourages industry stakeholders to encourage dialog with consumers and engage their passion for livestock production in their messages. Passion, coupled with honesty and transparency, she says, resonates better with consumers than scientific, industry-driven messages.