ABC News has filed a motion to dismiss a $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit brought in September by Beef Products Inc., the South Dakota-based specialty processor, over news coverage of Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB), better known as “pink slime.”
The lawsuit claimed that in more than 200 statements, the news organization’s coverage of the controversy over LFTB “damaged the company by misleading consumers into believing the product is unhealthy and unsafe.”
The “damaged” part is not in dispute; the “misleading” part most certainly is.
According to multiple news sources, the BPI lawsuit is seeking damages under South Dakota defamation law and a 1994 state law that allows businesses to sue anyone who knowingly spreads false information that a food product is unsafe.
Along with ABC News and its parent company, the suit named ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer and correspondents Jim Avila and David Kerley as defendants. It also named Gerald Zirnstein, the USDA microbiologist who first called the product pink slime, former federal food scientist Carl Custer and Kit Foshee, an ex-BPI quality assurance manager who was interviewed by ABC.
In response, ABC News’ lawyers argued that while “pink slime” may come across as unappetizing, it is not incorrect. Lean, finely textured beef is both pink and—like all ground beef—has a slimy texture, the lawyers argued. “That term, while unflattering, does not convey false facts about the color or texture of LFTB and is precisely the kind of ‘imaginative expression’ and ‘rhetorical hyperbole’ that is constitutionally protected,” a memo attached to the motion reportedly stated.
Silent and invisible
Nobody needs to make the case that the controversy over pink slime caused enormous economic damage to BPI. Virtually all of its leading customers quickly bailed, media coverage in general was sensationalized and in the wake of all the lost business, company officials were forced to close three plants and lay off about 700 workers.
The fallout was severe and resulted in a crushing blow to the company’s fortunes.
Unfortunately, although BPI would like to portray what happened as a smear campaign, it was instead a colossal failure of industry and, unfortunately, the company, to anticipate problems with the product and the term pink slime, compounded by a do-nothing attitude on the part of the trade groups and its hired experts, who should have stepped up early in this debacle to defend BPI and denounce its detractors.