Looking beyond clean, simple labels

by Keith Nunes and Erica Shaffer
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Recent events have highlighted not-so-subtle nuances of the clean, simple label trend. Having a short, easy-to-understand ingredients panel on a product may not be enough anymore. Consumers also have shown concern about how a product is manufactured or handled and may be prompted to take action if they are convinced a manufacturing process or ingredient may be unsafe.

The issue of lean finely textured beef could be characterized as a teachable moment for the entire food and beverage industry, according to the American Meat Institute. During the A.M.I.’s International Expo, which took place May 1-3 at the Dallas Convention Center, industry officials and executives gathered to discuss the issue.

Janet Riley, senior vice-president of public affairs for the A.M.I., led an education session about L.F.T.B. during which she and a panel of speakers addressed key issues surrounding the controversy, and the science behind the product’s production. Speakers also described the economic impact media coverage had on beef markets and beef demand.

The panel included Jim Dickson, a professor in the Department of Animal Science at Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa; Robert Hibbert, a partner at K&L Gates law firm, Washington; and Ron Plain, Howard Doane Professor of Agricultural Economics and Extension Economics at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

Dr. Dickson talked about the science behind L.F.T.B. and the misconceptions he encountered regarding the product. He compared the story about L.F.T.B. being made from scraps that are scraped from the plant floor and tossed into a meat grinder to Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle.” He also discussed centrifugal separation, and how it is used in other food industries, such as dairy processing.

“People talk about this technology as if it’s foreign … but in reality we use it a lot,”
Dr. Dickson said.

Mr. Hibbert discussed labeling L.F.T.B. He said ammonium hydroxide, a food safety intervention used to kill food borne pathogens in beef trim, is a processing aid that manufacturers are not required to include on a label.

He added that “new actors” such as consumers using social media and bloggers were in-fluencing attitudes about the food industry.

The economic impact of consumer response to the use of L.F.T.B. moved beyond lost jobs, Dr. Plain said. For example, the cutout values for fed cattle declined. The price spread between Choice and Select grades of meat also decreased and lean trimmings became less valuable.

“If consumers think of your product as ‘pink slime’ you’re not likely to sell much of it,” he said. Food is special in that perception depends on the image a food has in an individual’s mind, Dr. Plain said. Sometimes, the image overwhelms facts and logic, he added.

Although it remains unclear what precipitated the intense response to the use of L.F.T.B., there are many reasons why the issue gained traction among consumers, Ms. Riley said. The term “pink slime,” which was coined by a former U.S. Department of Agriculture employee, shaped perceptions of the product.

The media also shaped perceptions with its intense scrutiny of the product. Ms. Riley said Jim Avila, a broadcast journalist for ABC News, was very aggressive in his coverage and follow-up. Mr. Avila has tweeted 75 times about L.F.T.B. since March and there were nine days of reporting by ABC News on the subject in the month of March alone.

Starbucks gets bugged
The Starbucks Coffee Co., Seattle, found itself in a similar situation to ground beef processors when consumer groups took issue with the use of cochineal extract to provide the red tint to some of its products. Cochineal extract is sourced from cochineal beetles and, initially, was targeted by vegetarians upset about insects being killed and used for food. But the issue transitioned to the mainstream media as more consumers were informed that the coffee chain was using insects in its products.

On April 19, Cliff Burrows, president of Starbucks U.S., wrote in a blog post that the company was working to end the use of cochineal extract to color some of its beverages.

“After a thorough, yet fastidious, evaluation, I am pleased to report that we are reformulating the affected products to assure the highest quality possible,” Mr. Burrows wrote in the blog entry. “Our expectation is to be fully transitioned to lycopene, a natural, tomato-based extract, in the strawberry sauce (base) used in our Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino blended beverage and strawberry banana smoothie.”

He added Starbucks will transition away from using cochineal extract in other food products that contain it. The products included raspberry swirl cake, birthday cake pop, mini donut with pink icing and red velvet whoopie pie.

“This transition will occur over time as we finalize revisions and manage production,” Mr. Burrows said. “Our intention is to be fully transitioned from existing product inventories to revised food and beverage offerings near the end of June across the U.S.”

Starbucks started using the cochineal extract in response to consumer demand that companies reduce the use of synthetic colors in its food and beverage products.

Offering market insights
In late April, Corn Products International/National Starch Food Innovation, Westchester, Ill., launched cleanlabelinsights.com, a web site focused on the clean label trend. Despite growing demand from consumers for cleaner labels, no industry-wide definition currently exists, according to the company. In response, the web site is designed to provide a platform for manufacturers to access the research, technical advances, culinary applications, regulatory information, and case studies on consumer product activity in the clean label space.

“We want to be at the forefront of the clean label trend — this initiative will enable us to present and share an in-depth understanding of consumer attitudes and strengthen our position as the industry authority and go-to clean label partner,” said Aaron Edwards, global director of wholesome for Corn Products/National Starch.

The introduction of the Corn Products/National Starch web site is timely. During the A.M.I. International Expo education session, Ms. Riley noted that the company that manufactures L.F.T.B. and the processors that use the product were caught off guard by the media attention. The L.F.T.B. product has been available and in use for almost 30 years and it was unclear why concerns were raised.

She added that for the meat industry transparency will be important to defusing future misperceptions about industry products and practices.

Mr. Hibbert, the lawyer for K&L Gates, added, “We’re in the food business, and we’re trying to make sure it’s abundant, affordable and safe.” He said industry should try to “overwhelm bad information with better information as quickly as possible.”
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