Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Incredible Edible...Pink Slime?

This article talks about three state governors (including my own lamentable Rick Perry) traveling to tour a production facility in order to try and save the businesses that produce 'pink slime', a form of processed lean beef currently in massive public disfavor.  Internet pictures of piles of nasty neon-pink goo, combined with descriptions of product processing, have greatly damaged the prospects of companies that sell this product.  Several of the grocery stores I frequent (Whole Foods, HEB), have put up signs assuring their customers that they do not sell it, because people simply do not want to eat it.

As I read over this article, especially the last half, what I'm really struck by is a profound misunderstanding by some people on how the free market works.

You make a product that is disgusting, but safe for human consumption by legal standards.  People, upon finding out how you make it, stop wanting to eat it and choose to buy other things.  This is, well, how an economy works.  It's your responsibility to change public perceptions or make your product more appealing through marketing or pricing.  It's not government's job to save your business.

All I ask is that the food be labeled as to its contents so that people can decide for themselves what to eat.  No bans, no government protections for industries who claim they can't compete with bad press.  A level, fully informed playing field on which basic capitalism can determine who fails and who thrives, so long as minimum food safety requirements are met (which, in fact, 'pink slime' or 'finely textured lean ground beef' does).   The unpopularity of a product is a sad reality for all businesses:  ask Coke and Pepsi how many products (New Coke, Pepsi Clear...) have failed because people just didn't want them.

In the early 80's, doctors began aggressively insisting patients limit cholesterol, especially eggs.  Egg producers started losing money.  In response, we got the Egg Council and ads for 'the Incredible Edible Egg'.  You'll notice that people are still eating eggs.  By the basketful.  Eggs in cookies, eggs in omelettes, eggs in every conceivable form, and it turns out that they're actually pretty good for us.  Though some producers suffered fiscal setbacks, egg consumption is high and production of both conventional and cage-free eggs is a pretty lucrative business.

What do I remember as being different?  Well, no one called for a ban on eggs and egg products due to their unhealthy nature.  People decided for themselves what to eat, and they voted with their budgets on what industries they wanted to support.  And the egg producers, for the most part, took matters into their own hands.  They created commercials that said, "You know what?  Eggs are fucking delicious.  Get you some."  (I paraphrase sometimes...)

There may have been small subsidies I don't remember, and I'm sure that some elected officials spoke publicly in support of the egg industry.  But complaining that "we can't compete in light of negative public opinion and it's not FAIR," is frankly bullshit.  You're right.  You can't compete because once people know how you produce that cheap food they were enjoying, they lose their taste for it.

The larger statement is, of course, that if more of us knew how and under what circumstances our food was produced, we wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole.  For myself, I greatly increased my consumption of local produce and small-farm fruits and vegetables, as well as free range meat produced without hormones or prophylactic antibiotics, and ethically produced seafood, when I started looking closely at my food chain.  Several months out of the year my produce comes from Tecolote Farm in a CSA basket, because it takes away my appetite to consider my spinach being picked by an undocumented migrant worker receiving a few dollars a day and living under deplorable conditions.

Food is about choices.  We have to make good choices if we want to be as healthy as we possibly can.  And when a company produces food that people choose not to eat, it's that company's problem, not my governor's and not mine.

Conservatives are forever telling people that we have to let the market solve all economic ills.  There is no sphere in which I agree more with this than the sphere of food production and consumption.  All I want my government to do is ensure that the labels on my food are correct, and that my food is free of harmful contaminants and produced in a safe manner.  Everything else, the market and I will sort out for ourselves, and neither one of us believes in the idea that anyone (not Cargill, not Monsanto, not ADM or Farmland) is 'too big to fail'.


  1. On a somewhat related note (free market and all that), when I switched my banking from Wells Fargo to a credit union, my mom didn't agree with my decision. Her concern was that a lot of people were switching away from big banks, and this would cause the people who work for big banks to lose their jobs. I finally explained my decision to her in similar terms as you laid out here. At it's core, it's a personal economic decision. If two banks are offering me all of the same services and both have the same customer service, but one charges me more for those services, why would I support the one who charges me more? It's a logical decision to go with the company who is running their business better from a customer standpoint. And you know what? People aren't going to stop banking and demand for it won't decrease. Those people who might lose their jobs because their employer can't compete with credit unions will get jobs at the credit unions that are booming. It is not my responsibility to support a business that isn't conducting itself well.

  2. Vashalla, that's exactly right. Companies work for us far more often than we work for them, and if they don't do what we want them to do, we're under no obligation to give them our money. If companies shrink because they make bad business decisions, two things happen. The first is that other companies, who make good decisions, have the option of gaining qualified, talented employees who are now at liberty.

    The other is that the employees they kept *remember* that when the going got tough, the management chose to cut loyal, dedicated staff. When other options come along, they'll take them.