For many years, some ingredients that have been routinely included in food sold to the public and have attracted little attention. The FDA and other government agencies approved them because they “supposedly” did not pose any health risks.That changed when events or people shined a light on these ingredients and branded them with a decidedly negative, or even repulsive, label.
The most recent case is an ingredient that the food industry euphemistically calls “lean finely textured beef.” 10 years ago, a USDA microbiologist, Gerald Zirnstein, referred to this ingredient as “pink slime” in a private email to colleagues.
What is “pink slime” and how is it made? Pink slime is made from “throw-away” beef trimmings that are heated and spun in a centrifuge to separate out the fat. The “lean meat” remains are treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill any harmful bacteria (a process used in the processing of many food products to make them safer). It is then flash frozen and pressed into usable shape for further processing into ground beef and other meat products. Any way you slice it, this all sounds really bad.
What started the viral negative word-of-mouth pyramid? According to an Ad Age post by E.J. Shultz, in April of 2011, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver somehow got wind of the email and made it a topic on his TV Show. In March of this year, ABC World News with Diane Sawyer broadcast an unflattering segment about pink slime as a cheap filler in ground beef products that was once only used in dog food. This caused a Texas mum, Bettina Elias Siegel, to circulate an online petition via her blog (The Lunch Tray) and gathered over 200,000 signatures in 8 days to remove pink slime from school food. Soon fast food chains, supermarkets, and others began distancing themselves from the ingredient assuring their customers that they no longer sell meat products that use pink slime.
A branding term nobody can ignore. This negative viral pyramid spread like wildfire because pink slime sounds disgusting, forms negative visual images in the brain, is difficult to ignore, and is easy to pass along in both traditional and social media. When people learn that it is made from “throw-away” parts of beef carcasses, treated with an ammonia compound, and formerly used in dog food, the negative images are multiplied. The result has been economically devastating for “lean finely textured beef” manufacturers and meat processors.
In March, the public learned that Starbucks routinely used a red dye made from crushed beetles in its strawberry-flavored mixed drinks, red velvet whoopee pie, raspberry swirl cake, and other red-coloured products. Perhaps the public does not know that this red dye, referred to as carmine dye (or cochineal dye after the name of the beetle) is commonly used in foods, lipsticks, and shampoo. Since it is made from “natural” ingredients, most believe it is healthier than other red dyes, such as Red 40, that have known side effects.
Starbucks routinely used cochineal dye because it positions its products as using only natural ingredients. A vegan Starbucks barista anonymously blew the whistle by emailing “this dish is vegetarian” web site that certain Starbucks drinks contained this dye. Media, such as the Los Angeles Times, started using the term “beetle juice” to brand the message into the brains of its readers. This caused quite a stir with the public since beetle juice sounds not much more appetizing than pink slime. Furthermore, the Starbucks offerings that use it are not vegan, not vegetarian, and not kosher. Because of these issues, Starbucks did not win trust points with its customers who are now wondering what other interesting ingredients may be other Starbucks products.
As with pink slime, beetle juice has the branding characteristics of easy to remember, easy to pass on, and “hard to swallow” in a food product.
Anti-dusting agents and silicon dioxide
Last year, Taco Bell felt compelled to post the ingredients in its taco meat filling when a former employee alleged in a lawsuit that its taco filling did not meet the FDA requirements for ground beef. Two ingredients in particular caught the attention of news media, talk shows, and comedy programs – soybean-based anti-dusting agent and silicon dioxide anti-caking agent. As with pink slime and beetle juice, these ingredients are common in many processed foods, but they sound really bad as food ingredients. In fact Stephen Colbert did a very funny piece in which he said, “You might recognise silicon dioxide by its street name – sand.” The cumulative effect of the negative publicity from the lawsuit and its aftermath caused a decline in Taco Bell sales in 2011.
The branding of ingredients that create decidedly negative images is one of the hazards of doing business in the era of social media. People with a negative agenda or a justified complaint about ingredients in your products might give them an effectively damaging label (pink slime, beetle juice, dusting agents or sand) that create rapidly-growing viral pyramids that can do significant damage to your sales and corporate image. Marketers have a new term for this process – hijacked media. It is the opposite of earned media, where fans spread the positive word about your company and products. The best you can do if you are the victim of hijacked media is to use the appropriate fact and rumour procedures.
In the case of ingredients that are harmful, however, we should be grateful to creative people that effectively brand bad ingredients for our own good.
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