DAKOTA DUNES -- Top executives for Beef Products Inc. admit that they had never heard of The Daily, a year-old news organization publishing primarily via iPad, before last month.
But with a March 5 story that reprised criticism of BPI's signature lean beef trimmings, The Daily helped ignite a media firestorm that left the Dakota Dunes-based firm fighting for its life just three weeks later.
By the time BPI officials realized the fast-spreading avalanche of negative publicity was impaling their business, much of the damage was done.
"I don't think anyone of us had any idea that something like this was going to happen," BPI Vice President Regina Roth told reporters at a March 26 news conference where the company announced it had idled three of its four plants in the aftermath of losing more than half its sales.
After some early missteps, BPI mounted a counterattack, refuting misconceptions with the help of allies that included meat industry representatives, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials and beef state politicians, who denounced the "smear" campaign against an employer that has produced a safe, nutritious product for more than two decades.
A March 29 event, in which three governors and two lieutenant governors toured BPI's South Sioux City plant and later tasted burgers containing LFTB, attracted national media attention. Hundreds of "Dude, It's Beef" shirts were printed, with the slogan serving as a rallying cry for hometown backers.
By the first week in April, BPI, the USDA and some major meat processors had endorsed voluntary labeling of LFTB.
Though the once-intense media coverage has subsided, communications experts say only time will tell whether BPI will be successful in its quest to win back customers and restore confidence in its product.
"There might be fewer conversations and fewer articles about it, but that doesn't necessarily mean perceptions have changed," said Scott Bishop, a social media expert with the Omaha public relations firm Bozell.
WHAT WENT WRONG
BPI, a family-owned business founded by Eldon and Regina Roth in 1981, had weathered previous controversy, including unflattering portrayals of its product in the 2008 Academy Award-nominated film Food Inc., and a 2009 Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times series.
So what was different this time around? What caused such a flood of negative media coverage and devastating consumer backlash?
Communications experts said BPI had been sitting on a powder keg ever since publication of The New York Times series, which contained the first public reference to "pink slime," a stomach-churning term critics have widely used to deride LFTB.
Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who represents plaintiffs in food-poisoning cases, and also runs a website called Food Safety News, said BPI missed an opportunity to get out in front of The Times piece. At the time, the company should have started educating the public about its manufacturing process, the safety of its product, and the benefits it provides to the beef industry, said Marler, who has met the Roths and toured their flagship plant in South Sioux City.
"Instead of dealing with the possibility that this pink slime thing could erupt again, they just ignored it, and hoped it would go away," he said.
"They had gotten lucky that it hadn't really caught on before," Bishop added. "I think they assumed this was another time that it would calm down, but it didn't. The timing was right for it to go viral."
The Daily, a product of media giant News Corp., which also owns Fox News Channel and the Wall Street Journal, started the most recent media avalanche with its March 5 piece headlined, "Partners in Slime." It was illustrated with a photo of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver gripping a jug of household ammonia.
In a stunt on his prime time TV show in April 2011, Oliver poured the liquid over a bowl of hamburger to illustrate what he "imagined" BPI's treatment process was like.
In reality, BPI treats the bits of lean meat separated from fatty trimmings with a puff of ammonia hydroxide gas -- a naturally occurring element -- to kill E. coli and other potentially-deadly strains of bacteria.
The Daily story, which portrayed LFTB as unappetizing and potentially unsafe, pointed out that while some fast-food restaurants like McDonald's had stopped buying LFTB the year before, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was supplying 7 million pounds of it this year to the nation's school lunch program.
Among those who noticed the piece were ABC News senior correspondent Jim Avila and food blogger Bettina Siegel.
Two nights later, Avila aired the first of a series of reports on LFTB on ABC World News Tonight. Avila and anchor Diane Sawyer voiced the words "pink slime" over and over, and repeatedly flashed the term on the screen.
A day earlier, Siegel, a Houston mother, food activist and former attorney, started railing against LFTB on her blog, called the Lunch Tray. She circulated a petition asking the USDA to remove it from school menus. Within days, she had amassed more than 250,000 signatures, many from worried parents.
Siegel declined to comment for this story.
As other media outlets and bloggers jumped on the story, scores of owners of iPads, mobile phones and other devices posted it on Facebook and re-tweeted it on Twitter.
Bowing to pressure, the USDA announced on March 17 it would give local schools the choice of buying ground beef with or without LFTB.
The Daily, meanwhile, continued its barrage of coverage, which included putting together a list of major supermarket chains that sold the product.
After receiving calls and emails from scores of worried consumers, many of those chains soon caved. On March 21, SuperValu, Kroeger and Food Lion all announced they were discontinuing sales of LFTB.
With no marketing department to speak of and a limited social media presence, BPI was ill-prepared to quell the misrepresentations above its product, communications experts say.
"The vast majority of people had no idea (BPI's) product was in their hamburger," Marler said. "It was a vacuum waiting to be filled with negativism."
Some BPI employees helped fill that void by launching their own social media campaign.
Tom Cother and Travis Derochie, who are based in BPI's South Sioux City office, started a Facebook group called, "People for the Truth," on March 23. Though they knew little about Facebook, they felt compelled to do something after seeing so many misrepresentations, including a widely circulated photo that misidentified LFTB. The picture actually was mechanically separated chicken oozing out of a grinder.
"The things that are being said out there are not true," Derochie said. "I can't imagine a company getting taken down on lies."
Cother said he offered to help administer the Facebook site, not only to help save his own job and those of his colleagues, but also to defend the company's reputation.
People for the Truth, which has grown to more than 20,000 members, has worked to convince retailers to start carrying the product again, and directed online visitors to links like beefisbeef.com, which BPI established to combat myths about LFTB.
The public outreach is slowing changing minds of those who bought into the social-media driven hysteria about the product, Cother said.