Cargill calls Harper's piece a 'fable-like tale'

2013-04-20T17:00:00Z 2015-01-22T17:10:24Z Cargill calls Harper's piece a 'fable-like tale'By the Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com
April 20, 2013 5:00 pm  • 

Cargill criticized Harper's Magazine for sending a reporter undercover as a USDA inspector to its beef plant in Schuyler -- when it didn't need to -- and for a variety of inaccuracies, some minor, some significant. 

The reporter, Ted Conover, "grossly overstated" the cost of shutting down the plant's production line and spent all his time in the "warm" portion of the plant, where animals are killed and processes continue before the carcasses are cooled, which ignored the rest of the operation, Mike Martin, Cargill's meat division spokesman, said in an interview.  

"They made it sound like the only people who can stop the production line is USDA inspectors," Martin said. "Every employee has the freedom to stop the line if they feel there is something that needs to be addressed.

"He also insisted on referring to Lean Finely Textured Beef," Martin said. "That's not our product. Ours is called finely textured beef, theirs is patented by Beef Products Inc., ours is patented by Cargill and they cannot be interchanged. They ignored that."

He also objected to the suggestion that the animals know they're going to die.

Generally, Martin described the story as intentionally inflammatory or dramatic, "and it wasn't accurate."

Cargill was told in March the article would be coming out. 

In a separate email, Martin said: "This type of 'hit-and-run' journalism is something the article’s author has done before, and is a disservice to the entire profession, especially for journalists who knock on the front door before entering."

"We believe the author’s reference to the 1906 novel by Upton Sinclair, 'The Jungle,' in his Harper’s article is an apt one given the fable-like tale told on the pages of the magazine," he said.

Conover said he tried to be very fair. 

"I don't actually apply the word undercover. Harper's did. To me it's participatory journalism, doing something yourself, that's the best way to learn about it in detail," he said in an interview.

Conover said he applied for the job using his legal name.

"This was not an 'expose' about dirty meat," he said. "It's what it's like to work in a big plant. I went in with no malice." 

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service had no comment.

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