BPI files defamation lawsuit against ABC

Sep 14, 2012

Beef Products Inc. (BPI) last week announced the filing of a defamation lawsuit against ABC News for its coverage of lean, finely textured beef (LFTB), dubbed “pink slime” by critics, alleging that the network misled consumers to believe the product is unhealthy and unsafe.

The company filed its lawsuit in a South Dakota state court, seeking $1.2 billion in damages. South Dakota, along with 12 other states, have a food libel law that gives agricultural companies the ability to sue when their products are criticized.

The South Dakota meat processor is seeking $1.2 billion in damages for roughly 200 statements they say were false, misleading and defamatory, said Dan Webb, BPI’s Chicago-based attorney. The lawsuit filed in a South Dakota state court also accuses ABC News of improper interference with the relationships between BPI and its customers.

BPI is also suing ABC News for saying the company’s beef product isn’t even beef, but instead a waste product from cattle carcasses.

“It caused consumers to believe that our lean beef is not beef at all—that it’s an unhealthy pink slime, unsafe for public consumption, and that somehow it got hidden in the meat,” Webb said.

ABC News denied BPI’s claims. “The lawsuit is without merit. We will contest it vigorously,” Jeffrey W. Schneider, the news station’s senior vice president, said in a brief statement last Thursday.

The statements cited in the lawsuit include 11 that aired on television and 14 that appeared online in March. Webb said the reports forced BPI to close three of its four U.S. plants and lay off more than 650 workers. Webb said the network also published a list of chain grocery stores that had stopped selling the product, and that this pressured others to end their business relationship with BPI.

Pennsylvania’s AFA Foods filed for bankruptcy protection in April, citing reduced demand stemming from the media’s coverage of “pink slime.”

The 257-page lawsuit names American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., ABC News, Inc., ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer, and ABC correspondents Jim Avila and David Kerley as defendants. It also names Gerald Zirnstein, the USDA microbiologist who coined the term “pink slime,” Carl Custer, a former federal food scientist, and Kit Foshee, a former BPI quality assurance manager who was interviewed by ABC.

The “pink slime” media blitz is blamed for the closure of three of BPI’s four U.S. plants, Amarillo, TX, Garden City, KS, and Waterloo, IA. The company kept its facility in South Sioux City, NE, open but at reduced capacity. The company said 650 people lost their jobs as a result of the plant closings, while the company shed an additional 85 jobs at the company’s headquarters in North Sioux City.

Webb said ABC also published a list of chain grocery stores that had stopped selling the product, and that this pressured others to end their business relationship with BPI, resulting in a loss of 80 percent of the company’s business.

Webb told reporters that the media reports created the false impression “that it’s some type of chemical product; that it’s not beef. It led people to believe that it’s some kind of repulsive, horrible, vile substance that got put into ground beef and hidden from consumers.”

USDA has said that most of the schools in the National School Lunch Program have ordered ground beef that doesn’t contain the product. Only three—Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota—chose to order beef that may contain it.

The company has won support from the governors of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas and South Dakota. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has also defended the product, saying the federal government wouldn’t allow the product if it was unsafe.

In late March, governors from three states walked through a BPI plant with reporters and defended LFTB.

“It’s beef, but it’s leaner beef, which is better for you,” Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said. “We take this off the market then we end up with a fatter product that’s going to cost more and is going to increase the obesity problem in this country.”

The company has launched its own public relations offensive, including a website—to advocate for the product, www.beefisbeef.com — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor