The last time something like this happened, Texas cattleman Paul Engler and friends sued TV Icon/Goddess Oprah Winfrey for making disparaging and libelous comments about ground beef.  Disparagement was quickly thrown out but that libel charge was reviewed by the judge.  Lots of testimony ensued, Dr. Phil was called as an expert witness for the defense and we haven’t been able to get rid of him to this day.  Oprah was exonerated after receiving millions of dollars worth of publicity.

Oprah’s off-hand comment about never eating ground beef again doesn’t even reach the quarter pounder stage compared to what BPI is asking of ABC News.  There wasn’t enough meat there to make a decent slider.  BPI has announced they want serious retribution – 1.2 billion dollars plus punitive damages.  Let me spell that out again: One-point-two billion dollars PLUS punitive damages.

The one-point-two was arrived at by filing the legal papers in South Dakota.  State law allows treble damages for lost profits in cases like this and BPI claims they’ve lost $400,000,000.  The punitive damages part was added, I think, because ABC insisted on stretching out this story line and annoying the hell out of BPI founder Eldon Roth. 

Personal opinion: I think there is no doubt that ABC News went above and beyond to witch hunt lean, finely textured beef.  Diane Sawyer, Jim Avila, et al, pounded this story line for 30 days, well beyond the coverage they gave to almost any other event in the fast news era of the twenty-first century.  Usually, a news item is a day or two thing before the public and the media get bored with it and move on with the possible exception of ultra-light news like whatever it is the Kardashians are doing lately.

Whatever drove those newsies to stick with it for a full month?  Ratings? Avila’s ego? A slow news month?  Or as BPI lawyer Dan Webb suggested, "ABC did this with malice, and they knew what they were doing. They decided to destroy this business and they decimated the product in the marketplace." We may never know.

And whether BPI has a legal leg to kick some ABC booty with is yet to be determined.  Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president of ABC News, speaking from the lawyers hymnal of what to say when cornered by the press, said "The lawsuit is without merit.  We will contest it vigorously."

Webb, responding to a reporter’s question, said he would consider a settlement but doubted ABC would make such an offer.

No, this is going to court. 

ABC denies its reports were defamatory, of course.  That’s a legal definition.  No doubt, though that was sensationalism at its worst.  Avila resolutely refused to use the proper term “lean, finely textured beef” when the much more colorful “pink slime” had such tremendous emotional impact, especially with school lunch-buying soccer moms.  To be honest, lean, finely textured beef sounds absolutely healthy; pink slime is disgusting.

Avila ignored scientific papers sent to him by BPI.  When the American Meat Institute’s Janet Riley offered names of third party experts who would help broaden his knowledge of the product, he sniffed that he would never go to AMI’s paid shills for expert opinions.  He insisted on using his own paid shills.

Kevin Coupe, writing in his blog MorningNewsBeat, got to the core of the issue.  Almost.  He wrote,“The pink slime issue, in the end, is more about what people did not know, as opposed to what BPI did.

“It seems to me that one of the things that the food industry has to grapple with is the notion that people simply want basic, accurate information - or at least want it available, even if they don't use it,” Coupe wrote.

“I'm not even suggesting here that BPI was doing something wrong; that's a different discussion. And I recognize that this kind of disclosue creates all sorts of problems and challenges for companies.But this strikes me as a new reality. Define yourself accurately, or someone else will define you, and perhaps in ways that could cause enormous damage.”

I’ll agree with Coupe but add one little clause.  First, the agreement: With instant communications the new norm, no one can hide anything for any length of time.  Better to explain what you’re doing on your terms than let someone else explain it for you on his or her terms.  Odds are very strong that ‘someone else’ will not be your friend.

And the one little clause; unlike Cargill, Tyson, Nestle and thousands of other companies that sell to the public, BPI sells an ingredient to food processors.  They sell nothing directly to the public.  Is it BPI’s duty to tell the public the names of the companies that use its product as a component of their ground beef?  I don’t think so.  I suspect there are contractual obligations – non-disclosure clauses - that come into play.  What’s sold to the public and how those products should be labeled is out of BPI’s control.

Let’s spend a few minutes with social media to learn what people are saying about this suit:

Posted on Food Safety News, Amelia wrote, “BPI sure got unfairly screwed and I wish them luck but not much chance of forcing ABC and Disney to pay up. I would prefer to see families of unemployed BPI workers join in a class action suit against vulnerable instigators and followers: Bettina Seigel, Jamie Oliver's production company, some of the school districts who jumped on the band wagon and jettisoned a perfectly safe nourishing food, LFTB. Wouldn't get $1.2 billion but plenty enough to send the chastised schools back to court after Disney for damages. Now there you might have a shot, hoodwinked school kids vs. a reckless Disney/ABC.”

Wynnan shot back with this: “BPI was not screwed, but the people of America were when poisonous crap in the form of fillers, preservatives and whatever in our food so they can stretch the greedy $'s out as far as they can to fill their greedy pockets. They and Montsano and others don't give a rat’s behind as to what they do to our food, as long as they get the big bucks. Let the people decide what we eat or don't eat. Keep the chemical pink slime out of our meat, and all other chemicals out of all of our food.”

Posted on ABC News by txashley: “Complaints about this ‘not being real beef’ is ironic. It COMES from cattle, therefore it is beef. The only difference is that this product comes from closer to the fat layer. The benefit of separating the fat from the lean in the beef trimmings is the ability to make leaner and more affordable ground beef blends; however, this separation has historically been nearly impossible to do by hand. This is where LFTB comes in.”

Mr.wanttoknow posted, "’Pink slim’ is unfortunately very much part of our lives. It is pure meat manipulation (and the laughable part is: IT IS ALL ALLOWED!!!) Hint: You eat meat, your life is at risk, it is very simple. EACH AND EVERY animal destined for the human food production is automatically tormented, tortured, terrorized, existing in terrible condition and deprived of any sort of luxury. Born to die so to speak. And they call it civilization! Dear people, please refrain from eating dead animals. Go vegetarian! It is never too late. You know it, I know it, everybody knows it!”

Special Note: ABC had to cover the suit, of course.  It was interesting that their online coverage was written by Grant Schulte of the Associated Press.

NPR’s blog was loaded with opinion, too.  natalietrusso (ntc) wrote: “This law suite is unacceptable. So now journalists are just supposed to take the government's word for it? If the FDA says something (is) safe, then no one should question it???? If they are so upset about losing business, maybe maybe they should invest in making a better, healthier, non processed product. What is the meat industry hiding? Did you know that journalists are not allowed to take photos inside some meat processing operations? Why is this?”

But a more reasoned approach came from rhkaneko who wrote: “It seems BPI has legitimate reason to sue ABC. All of our major news media corporations tend to mix in opinion with the news; had ABC simply reported what ‘pink slime’ was and in what products it was in, and left out the bit about how bad it is (even the way every reporter on the station says the word), BPI would not have a case.

“The stuff seems safe. It uses the trimmings of what would normally be thrown away. It would normally be landfill. It is repurposed trimmings, safe to eat. However, if consumers want to know whether a product has ‘pink slime’ in it or not, is another issue. Here, I think it is the right of the consumer to know what they want to know.

“Conclusion: I wish ABC could have done their stories with less of a defamatory tone. I think we could work past these stigmas we have about what's natural and what's safe. However, it is the right of an individual to choose what they want, what they don't want. It just didn't help things when ABC made it out to be worse than I think it actually is.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.