Commentary: The cost of activism
The prevailing take on the so-called “pink slime” controversy has been remarkably consistent. Virtually all of the major media coverage has drawn a stark and simplistic picture: Consumers shouldn’t have to accept disgusting by-products as “cheap filler” in such staples as hamburgers because the only purpose for using such ingredients is lining the pockets of Big Business.
The idea that lean finely textured beef might actually be wholesome only surfaced weeks into the firestorm and long after most grocery stores and fast-food chains had loudly and publicly sworn off the its use—because they care about their customers, of course, and they would never sell a product that’s now tainted with the “ick factor.”
As a result, the manufacturer, Beef Products International, has closed down production plants and laid off hundreds of workers, even while Midwest governors and business leaders tried to rally behind the safety and efficacy of the product.
(Where were they two weeks ago, when the story first broke?)
Now—finally—another side to the debate has emerged, and it’s an argument much broader than merely a debate over whether we can (or should) stomach the addition of pink slime in our ground beef products. As detailed in a recent Los Angeles Times commentary titled, “Food activism may come at a cost”, the power of social media that allowed the pink slime issue to erupt into a major controversy may end up having an effect the same consumers who are now so outraged might ultimately come to regret.
That’s because the activist-led drive to force changes across the entire food production industry is likely to accomplish something nobody wants: An increase in the cost of food.
A serious increase.
Right now, as the Times article noted in citing USDA data, U.S. citizens enjoy one of the least expensive food supplies in earth, at least in terms of the percentage of median incomes spent on food purchases. And that includes the fact that over half of each food dollar is spent on more expensive take-out and foodservice meals.
The wave of consumer-driven complaints about the lean beef ingredient swamped USDA officials, forcing them to stop buying the product for the national school lunch program. That, in turn, led to the supermarket and foodservice sectors hastening to follow suit.
Short-term, the disappearance of BPI’s product won’t radically raise anyone’s grocery bills, but the same process focused on other targets, such as changing the housing systems for pork and egg production, stopping the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture and even curtailing the use of feedlots and finishing programs, could raise food costs considerably.