Bettina Siegel, a Harvard Law School grad and Houston mother, simply wanted to bring attention to the quality of meat served to schoolchildren.
So in early March, she launched an online petition promoted through her Lunch Tray blog, seeking to have "lean finely textured beef" -- a type of ground beef made from trimmings and dubbed "pink slime" by critics -- banned from school lunches.
"If you'd asked me my goal when I launched it, I probably would have said I hoped to get a few hundred signatures, just to make a point," Siegel said.
Instead, the petition drive went viral, picked up more than 225,000 signatures in three weeks and inspired coverage from The Associated Press and national TV programs.
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Before long, the USDA changed course and announced that it would allow individual school districts to choose whether to use the rosy-hued beef product it had already ordered or switch to a ground beef product with more fat.
Pink slime became so high-profile that the industry blamed it in part for the drop in hamburger meat sales. Up the food chain, the large-scale ground-meat processor AFA Foods declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and hopes to sell off its three plants, including one in north Fort Worth with 240 employees.
The meat product has been around for years. But a campaign has been building against it, fueled by social media and the catchy, derogatory name.
The term pink slime made its public debut in a 2009 New York Times report that quoted a former USDA microbiologist's e-mail to a colleague.
Then Britain's Jamie Oliver of The Naked Chef savaged the meat product last year. More recently, it was covered by the news website The Huffington Post, the iPad news app The Daily, and at least seven prime-time news segments on ABC.
But many note that the government didn't change its policy until after Siegel's petition.
"The USDA was responsive to public opinion, and the petition had a big impact on that, so it definitely played a role," said Willie Ritch, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who is working to require the labeling of ground meat containing the beef trimmings.
While the USDA allows school districts to not accept hamburger meat with the trimmings, the agency emphasized that it still considers the product safe and advises consumers to consult "science-based information" before making shopping choices.
An issue that resonated
Siegel, 46, had never organized a petition drive, written or digital, before the beef one. It took off, the transplanted New Yorker believes, because the issue resonated with social networkers.
"I have my own platform, The Lunch Tray, and I belong to an amazing community of fellow bloggers who also care deeply about children, food, health and related issues," she told the Star-Telegram. "They really helped spread the word to their readerships, and I think that organic effort led to the first, say, [10,000] or 20,000 signatures.
"Then Change.org decided my petition was worthy of their help and they put it on their Web page and later sent it directly to their members, all of which only intensified the interest in it."
Of course, the campaign was helped by the emotive tag "pink slime," reportedly named by the former USDA microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein. The term created an almost insurmountable image challenge for the beef industry.
That didn't stop the American Meat Institute from imploring the news media to cease and desist.
"Calling it 'pink slime' is inaccurate, alarmist and disparaging," the trade group said. It argued that using heat and centrifugal force to separate meat from fat is not so different from homogenizing milk and orange juice.
"In the same way, LFTB is beef, and slang terms should not be used to characterize it," the AMI said.
Such a defense may be too late.
"Images are not erasable," says Nik Contis, a naming expert with the New York branding firm Siegel+Gale, no relation to Bettina Siegel. "Once planted, it is hard to replace with a new name. 'Pink slime' puts such a clear negative image in your mind."
The industry tried to counter the negative publicity with T-shirts declaring "Dude It's Beef," and it photographed Gov. Rick Perry and other farm-state governors wearing them on a plant visit.
The drop in demand for lean finely textured beef has cost packers up to $40 per head of cattle, pushing already negative margins to a loss of nearly $100 per head, analysts told Meatingplace, a trade publication.
Beef Products Inc., a pioneer in the beef product and a major processor, closed three of its four plants. Then there was AFA's Chapter 11 bankruptcy, blamed on declining demand. But some of that might be due to high prices and Lent, noted Eric Mittenthal, an American Meat Institute spokesman.
Oliver has been roundly attacked in meat industry chat rooms. But Siegel largely escaped criticism until talk of layoffs began.
Since then, "I've gotten deluged with negative comments on my blog," she said.
7 million pounds for school lunches
While home raising her children, Siegel became concerned about the nutrition of their meals at Houston public schools.
A Yale University graduate with a Harvard law degree, she had been Spider-Man's attorney in New York insofar as she handled intellectual-property issues for Marvel Comics. But now the powers at her command were focused on her Lunch Tray blog, about the food children eat in school and out.
Siegel believed that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had moved against lean finely textured beef after she read a July 2010 speech. So she was surprised to see The Daily's March 5 report that 7 million pounds of the processed trimmings -- some sterilized with ammonium hydroxide -- would be bought for school lunches.
"I think that's what tipped me over the edge, really," she said. "I had also only just learned that fast food companies like McDonald's, Taco Bell and Burger King had discontinued their use of LFTB. [Their] customers vote with their dollars, but kids in the National School Lunch Program have no say in what the government sees fit to feed them. That made me angry."
Her petition urged that ground beef, which can contain up to 15 percent of the mechanically separated and sanitized trimmings, be clearly labeled as such.
The industry feels slimed by the frenzy, saying it is powerless to neutralize the "yuck" factor. To make matters worse, a photo of another pink food substance -- apparently a poultry byproduct -- was widely disseminated and mislabeled as pink slime.
"What's unfortunate about this is that there's so much misinformation and vilification," said Michael Martin, a spokesman for Cargill, another maker of the product. "It's not scraps off the floor, not dog food, not tendons and cartilage. ... The fact is, it's beef. And like all beef, it has the same two proteins -- myosin and actin -- as found in filet mignon and rib-eye and chuck roast."
Beef Products Inc. created the product through a patented procedure, the only one that uses ammonium hydroxide. Cargill uses a citric acid wash. Small amounts of ammonia naturally occur in many food products.
Siegel said she has publicly given credit to the E. coli-testing protocol of Beef Products Inc., which she said "leads the entire beef industry" for inspecting for the "big six" strains of the bacteria. But she then cited the 2009 Times article as reporting that more than 52,000 pounds of its beef were found to contain E. coli, salmonella or both that year. The company blamed the failure of a nozzle that sprays ammonium hydroxide.
"Is there any room for human or mechanical error in the processing?" Siegel asks. "Is the back-end pathogen-testing 100 percent reliable? And what about strains of E. coli not part of the 'big six' tested for by BPI, such as the previously unknown strain that killed 45 and sickened thousands in Germany last summer?"
Siegel says much of the damage to the meat industry was self-inflicted.
"Had the industry been forthcoming about this filler from the start by labeling it, and had it made all the positive claims we're now hearing about LFTB -- it's economical, is low-fat, improves texture and is sustainable because it uses more of the cow -- I don't think we'd ever have seen the intense consumer backlash of the past few weeks," she added.
BPI and Cargill now say they would support voluntary labeling.
Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718