The man who blew the whistle on ‘pink slime’
This past week, the media woke up to the shocking reality that our meat supply is in fact industrialized. Long gone are the days of the friendly local butcher grinding meat for kids’ hamburgers. Instead, most hamburger now comes from a corporate behemoth you’ve probably never heard of called Beef Products Inc. (BPI), or “the world’s leading producer of lean beef processed from fresh beef trimmings.”
BPI now finds itself on the receiving end of consumer outrage over the ammonia-treated ground beef filler that one former United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) official famously dubbed “pink slime.” The news surfaced last week that this scary stuff is currently being served in school lunches, and a petition aimed at getting current USDA officials to stop serving “pink slime” has garnered more than 200,000 signatures in about a week. [Update: As of March 15, the USDA has announced that schools will be able to “opt out” of pink slime. What they’ll be able to replace it with if they do is another question.]
All the hullaballoo reminded me of a dramatic talk I witnessed about a year ago on this very topic at a conference organized by the Government Accountability Project (GAP)’s Food Integrity Campaign called “Employee Rights and the Food Safety Modernization Act.” The event’s focus was on the little-known but critical aspects of the newly enacted food safety law, which would give whistleblowers new protection.
The show-stopping presentation came from Kit Foshee, a former employee-turned-whistleblower who was fired by BPI, the very same company now in the news for pink slime. Foshee inspired a widely published op-ed written by GAP that lead to a several larger exposes in major newspapers.
So I went back to watch his presentation again, which the conference organizers were kind enough to make available online. (But only after Foshee’s attorneys gave their approval; it will soon become apparent why that huddle was needed.)
Foshee’s talk was remarkable for its content — he worked as BPI’s corporate quality assurance manager for 10 years and spoke in great detail about BPI’s beef filler-making process — but it was also a real act of bravery, as it involved confronting his former employers, who just happened to be in the room.
A few minutes into his talk, as Foshee was pointing out the absurdity of BPI’s food safety awards on their website, he dramatically turned toward the BPI attorneys and asked if they were there to protect whistleblowers and to keep our food safe, like the rest of us?
I stopped taking notes and looked up, as everyone else in the room did. I can’t recall ever hearing a whistleblower speak, let alone confront the company that fired him. The tension in the room was palpable but Foshee plowed ahead and answered for the BPI reps, who weren’t interested in dialogue.
“No, I am going to tell you right now, they’re not here to protect whistleblowers … They’re here with their tape recorder because they are going to find a way to shut me up. They’ve got sealed documents, that if I say anything about, they’re going to persecute me. So we’re going to stick with the publicly available information, from their website, to stay safe.”
(Foshee was referring to sealed court documents that resulted from his wrongful termination lawsuit against BPI. Later, he would challenge BPI to “open up these documents and see who’s lying.” Indeed, what is BPI trying to hide?)
He described the ammonia BPI added as “Mr. Clean,” and spoke of its awful smell. He asked if people would buy hamburgers if they knew BPI used ammonia “to clean it up.”
BPI and the meat industry have defended using ammonia (see pinkslimeisamyth.com) by claiming it reduces bacteria. Foshee disputed the company’s claims in great detail, calling their statements about reduced levels of the deadly strain of E. coli 0157:H7 “totally misleading.” (Their claims were also soundly disputed back in 2009 in this New York Times expose.)
Foshee said BPI would manipulate test results in various ways, including raising pH levels and avoiding effective testing methods. He said, “all they wanted was a test to give a negative result” and move on. Then he directed his remarks to the BPI attorneys in the audience, saying: “You want to promote that you’re a safe company to further your sales” but (pointing to their webpage) “this is false advertising.”
Then he said that many other meat companies had actually eliminated their own testing, relying instead on BPI’s safety claims. He exclaimed: “I don’t blame companies for believing it, because what idiot would [falsely] claim that?”
In another dramatic moment, Foshee challenged the BPI reps by saying “You want to sue me? Sue me, but quote your own studies correctly. It’s on your website. Quit trying to mislead consumers into thinking that if they buy from a company that uses BPI products in its ground beef, it’s safer — that’s absolutely false.”
Foshee then explained why whistleblowers need protection: “because companies falsify data … This company is still falsely advertising right now. Their product is in all the ground beef that you’re eating every day.”
He also told us how painful it was to get fired. He and his wife divorced because of the toll the experience took on his marriage when he gave up a six-figure salary. “You try to explain to your spouse why you’re giving up $30,000 bonuses,” he said.
According to Amanda Hitt, director of the Food Integrity Campaign, within hours of Foshee’s talk, BPI removed entire sections of its website. She also disputes BPI’s claims of food safety and says the goal was to offer up cheap filler for hamburgers. “This product was never about safety, it’s about economics,” she added.
In the meantime, pink slime is just one of many problems with industrialized meat. So let’s hope this week’s groundswell of interest in pink slime inspires Americans to demand labeling, buy organic, or stop eating ground beef all together.
We all have whistleblowers like Kit Foshee to thank for speaking out and shining a light on the need for real food safety, amidst the slime. Now, let’s hope the media pays more than just passing attention to these critical issues.
A version of this post ran on Michele Simon’s website Appetite for Profit.