Inside the surreal Twitter world of Steak-umm, a frozen-meat company that’s become an unlikely crusader against coronavirus conspiracies — and a darling of the scientists looking for the cure

A Steak-umm promotional image. Courtesy of Steak-umm
  • Steak-umm, a Pennsylvania-based frozen-steak company, has received an outpouring of attention over its tweets highlighting coronavirus misinformation.
  • The brand has always had a distinctive voice, honed by social media manager Nathan Allebach.
  • The scientific community has rallied around Steak-umm as a clear-headed voice for the masses.
  • A branding expert notes that Steak-umm has successfully inserted itself into the national conversation while also setting itself apart from competitors.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Scientists at the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic have a new online obsession: a frozen-meat company’s Twitter.

While they’re out fighting the virus, Steak-umm, a Pennsylvania-based purveyor of frozen cheesesteaks, has taken to battling misinformation online.

The Twitter floodgates broke lose in early April with two threads. The first one, posted on April 2, garnered a modest amount of Twitter fame with its thoughts on misinformation and cultural polarization.

But a follow-up thread on April 6 touching on the importance of good data – and where it comes from – was a bona fide hit. The thread received almost 20,000 retweets.

“Friendly reminder in times of uncertainty and misinformation: anecdotes are not data. (good) data is carefully measured and collected information based on a range of subject-dependent factors, including, but not limited to, controlled variables, meta-analysis, and randomization,” read the first tweet in the thread.

Since then, Steak-umm has continued to speak out against misinformation – and make its mark on Twitter discourse.

False information about COVID-19 has been a major issue throughout the pandemic. In February, World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “we’re fighting an infodemic,” and WHO has assembled a team of “mythbusters” to combat false information online.

And yet, according to an ABC News report, Twitter is “awash” with misinformation. In March, fact-checking site Snopes was overwhelmed by reports of false information.

In the midst of the vast swaths of information circulating online – and the people who incorrectly analyse it – the presence of Steak-umm has become a beacon of hope for scientists who are fighting the pandemic.

How Steak-umm love spread through the science community

Angela Rasmussen is a virologist at Columbia University in New York. She studies the host response to viral infections for emerging diseases – and now she’s doing those types of studies for coronavirus.

“It’s really important that people are being informed and are able to look for good information themselves – but also to remember that we’re all going through this together, and we’re all human beings, and we’re all experiencing a really difficult time,” she said. “It’s very unusual to see the corporate account for a brand of frozen processed meat sort of marrying those two concepts.”

She said she first found out about the brand’s Twitter through an online chat group of scientists – one of whom is Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease epidemiologist in Phoenix, Arizona.

Popescu helps hospitals prepare for biological events like pandemics, and has been going into COVID-19 units to work with staff to ensure they’re supported.

For her, the Steak-umm Twitter has become an unlikely resource for spreading understandable – and accurate – information to those outside of the scientific community.

“The messages that they have pushed out about information and being mindful of what you’re reading and you’re seeing … I think those are all messages that are really important to share, and they just presented it in such a way that was so understandable,” Popescu told Business Insider. “I have physicians I work with, and we were talking about how amazing that was.”

Sam Wang, a neuroscientist at Princeton University in New Jersey, said he’s heard similar sentiments from his peers.

“I have a colleague in the molecular biology department here at the university, and she seems really tickled by this frozen-sliced-beef brand delivering truth bombs,” Wang told Business Insider.

For Wang, one of the more valuable aspects of the Twitter threads are their accessibility. He said that he lives “in the world of peer-reviewed literature and reading studies” – but that’s likely not the case for your average Twitter user.

“I think there are large sectors of society that are more likely to encounter Steak-umm in their everyday lives than they are to encounter article preprints,” Wang said. “So if they learn from their favourite brands that evidence has to be used responsibly, I think that’s a whole new vista I would normally not be able to reach because of where I work for a living.”

How Steak-umm’s Twitter came to be

Steak-umms has been peddling thinly sliced frozen steaks since 1975. Founder Eugene Gagliardi set out to replicate the Philly cheesesteak experience at home. His recipe was an instant smash, and Gagliardi eventually sold the company for $US20 million.

Today, you can find the steak’s distinctive red box in your local frozen-foods aisle. For the more poultry-inclined, it also offers chicken-breast steaks – “the best cluckin’ steaks in town.”

But on Twitter, Steak-umm has now distinguished itself within the crowded world of vocal brand tweets.

Wendy’s famously snarky Twitter is tweeting about GroupNugs in lieu of group hugs, while Baby Nut is posting about how he is the reincarnated form of the deceased Mr. Peanut.

Meanwhile, Steak-umm is firing off compelling and logic-backed messages on partisanship, ignorance of science, and media literacy.

“It can be difficult to know what to believe in a time when institutional trust is diminished and the gatekeepers of information have been dismantled, but it’s more crucial now than ever before to follow a range of credentialed sources for both breaking news and data collection,” said one tweet in a now-famous April 6 thread.

But while Steak-umm’s popularity may seem like an overnight success, the brand has been slowly building up to this moment for years. So what changed?

The man behind the curtain is Nathan Allebach, a social media manager at Allebach Communications. He and his team were brought into the Steak-umm family in 2015 with the express mission of reaching the media-savvy millennial audience and a single directive: innovate.

That innovation – which had already gained recognition in 2018 after pensive tweets waxing about millennial despondency – came to fruition in early April.

The first attention-grabbing thread was published on April 2. It touched on partisanship, cultural polarization, and media information.

“The goal was to give a simple reminder for people to think critically about where they’re getting their information. It was never anything deep or grandiose, but given the current climate of misinformation and institutional distrust, it rang a chord,” Allebach told Business Insider in an email.

The now famous April 6 thread, which focused on the importance of good data and reporting, received almost 20,000 retweets. The outpouring on Twitter was instantaneous – and Allebach said it made the rounds on “Medical Twitter, to Science Twitter, to Media Twitter, Political Twitter, and so on.”

Outlets like Fast Company, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post clamored to cover them. Soledad O’Brien retweeted the brand, and the Pennsylvania Treasury praised them.

The brand doubled its Twitter following in about a week, according to account director Jesse Bender.

What it means to be a brand battling misinformation

Steak-umm itself would be the first to tell you that it is still fundamentally a brand selling a product.

“Note: all companies have a bottom line, so anything we publish is a form of propaganda to encourage positive association and memory with our brand, despite whatever our intentions,” read one tweet from April 17. “Remember to consume advertising and PR with scepticism, even if the message is ‘helpful.'”

Matt Tullis, the director of the digital journalism program at Fairfield University, tweeted that he would teach Steak-umm’s tweets on media literacy in his journalism classes in the fall.

“Whether or not it’s propaganda, I don’t know how they boiled all that down into 280 characters,” Tullis told Business Insider. “But they really did a great job of showing me exactly how complicated it really is to be a savvy news consumer.”

Tullis said that, beyond the brand’s success in spreading good information, they have gotten him to think about Steak-umms for the first time in “maybe 20 years.”

He wasn’t the only one: Popescu said that she’d now be willing to try the frozen steaks, and Wang is “kinda tempted” to try it.

Branding expert Sally Hogshead said that what Steak-umm has done “brilliantly” is galvanizing a community around a commodity – in this case, frozen steaks.

“This has really energised a social discussion that was already happening – but it wasn’t happening about Steak-umm,” Hogshead said. “So, by stepping into this discussion, they’re generating a lot of engagement and emotion.”

She added: “If a brand isn’t the most fascinating, and the most famous in the category, with the biggest budget, then the brand is never going to succeed, the product isn’t going to succeed. But when a brand is different and it has a distinct point of view and a memorable spark in the conversation, people are going to talk about it, remember it, buy it.”

Other brands have approached the pandemic with a variety of responses. Arby’s is posting artwork created out of Arby’s sauce. McDonald’s has been sending out clapping emojis for healthcare workers at 7:00 p.m. Burger King has gotten pithier, tweeting: “Not sure why we need to be the ones to tell you this, but don’t drink bleach.” But none have come close to Steak-umm’s detailed threads.

“Brands have platforms, budgets, and a familiarity with everyday people that allows them the space to voice matters in a way regular people often can’t due to sounding self-righteous, polarising, or just not having the platform,” Allebach said. “They just have to be ‘honest’ and true to their voice, through spreading helpful information, supporting people in need, and so on.”

And that information has certainly proven helpful to scientists.

“I think especially when you’re working in response, like so many of us are right now, it can be very frustrating trying to disseminate good information,” Popescu said. She said that it can be difficult to build that “bridge” of good information while in the middle of researching and learning more.

“Steak-umm coming along and being that third party that really didn’t have a horse in the race was kind of just amazing. And it was that lighthearted infusion of pragmatic honesty about research, and about data, and just information in general that was so appreciated,” she said. “Everybody I know loves it.”