Pink slime, yellow journalism and the amplification of risk

Public discussion of pink slime – LFTB, yo! — has denigrated into an Internet-energized caricature faster than the U.S. found itself at war with Spain over Cuba in 1898.

Technology will do that; but the basic framing of the public and political dialogue is the same, with contributions from hacks on many sides in the absence of data.

Is pink slime, or lean finely textured beef – safe and sustainable? Probably.

Does it make other beef safer when added to ground meat to make hamburger? Probably not.

Jim Dickson and colleagues at Iowa State verified the process works back in 2002. Within the food science nerd community, there has been some chatting about the rigor of the study but that’s normal: dispute and dissent, backed by evidence, is what makes science great (Niebuhr, S. and J.S. Dickson. 2002. Impact of pH Enhancement on the Populations of Salmonella, Listeria and Escherichia coli O157:H7 in Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings. Journal of Food Protection 66:874-877).

The politically-inspired formation of public opinion – the rhetoric – is an ancient art a lot easier to engage in rather than the actual grind of generating data.

Food is political, but it should be informed by data; and that data should be public.

There is a paucity of data about pink slime that is publicly available, so statements like it’s safe, or it’s gross, are difficult to quantify.

But many have no problem using pink slime as a launching pad to further validate their own personal agendas, and, I guess, make them feel better.

The cooking tips of Mark Bittman are occasionally useful. But like most entertainers, his forays into social policy sorta suck, error-ridden and conspiracy laden.

From his perch at the New York Times, Bittman once again proclaims industrial production is the root of all evil, because “E. coli, found in the digestive tracts of cattle, is common on factory farms where cattle are fed only grain.”

That’s nothing more than a political opinion, using selective or barely-existent science. Dangerous strains of E. coli happen, in all ruminants, so telling people it’s OK to eat ground hamburger at 120F may appeal to personal choice, until someone barfs. It’s bad science and bad policy. Bittman’s a repeat offender, placing politics and porn before evidence-based safety, and uses pink slime as a launching pad for a screed about antibiotic resistant pathogens in the food supply.

So do activist groups, some of whom say pink slime is nothing, the feds really want to reduce the amount of veterinary inspection at slaughter plants and that’s the real issue.

So do those who rail against media excess, employing rhetoric to write in excessive columns for media, that pink slime’s all a manufactured scare and people should go back to sleep.

Those who have recently discovered the Internet after Al Gore invented it in 1995 sagely state that social media makes everything happen really, really, really fast.

The derogatory phrase, yellow journalism, is credited to newspaper owners Slick Willy Randolph ‘Rosebud’ Hearst and the slightly creepy Joseph Pulitzer. The wiki version is that at the close of the 19th century, those two were fighting a circulation battle in New York City, and made their stories about alleged atrocities in Spanish-Cuba credible by self assertion and providing false names, dates, and locations of skirmishes and atrocities committed by the Spanish. Papers also claimed that their facts could be substantiated by the government.

Beef Product Inc., the makers of pink slime, when not lashing out at the meida, were quick to say government testing validated their views, and U.S. Department of Agriculture types said thousands of tests had not found the dangerous bugs – at least not the ones they were looking for. Relying on government validation builds suspicion rather than trust. If BPI has the safety data, make it public.

Amplification of messages through media is nothing new, especially if those messages support a pre-existing world-view.

In 1988, the Kaspersons and colleagues first formalized the theory of the social amplification of risk, which helps explain why minor technical risks become major public risks (see abstract below). Social media just accelerates the speed at which people can confirm their own pre-existing bias. It’s always been there, now it’s faster. Companies that expect to profit from the sale of food or wares may eventually catch up; maybe even the commentators.

The politicization and follow-the-leader soundbites of pink slime are worthy of a Monty Python skit. And leave that Welsh tart alone.

The social amplification of risk: A conceptual framework
Risk Analysis, Volume 8, Issue 2, pages 177–187, June 1988
Roger E. Kasperson, Ortwin Renn, Paul Slovic, Halina S. Brown, Jacque Emel, Robert Goble, Jeanne X. Kasperson, Samuel Ratick
One of the most perplexing problems in risk analysis is why some relatively minor risks or risk events, as assessed by technical experts, often elicit strong public concerns and result in substantial impacts upon society and economy. This article sets forth a conceptual framework that seeks to link systematically the technical assessment of risk with psychological, sociological, and cultural perspectives of risk perception and risk-related behavior. The main thesis is that hazards interact with psychological, social, institutional, and cultural processes in ways that may amplify or attenuate public responses to the risk or risk event. A structural description of the social amplification of risk is now possible. Amplification occurs at two stages: in the transfer of information about the risk, and in the response mechanisms of society. Signals about risk are processed by individual and social amplification stations, including the scientist who communicates the risk assessment, the news media, cultural groups, interpersonal networks, and others. Key steps of amplifications can be identified at each stage. The amplified risk leads to behavioral responses, which, in turn, result in secondary impacts. Models are presented that portray the elements and linkages in the proposed conceptual framework.