The $2-billion defamation lawsuit Beef Products Inc. filed against ABC News has begun with contrasting legal opinions about the reports on the “pink slime” the company marketed as a hamburger ingredient.
BPI’s lawyer, Dan Webb, said ABC used the “pink slime” term 350 times in television and other media reports, rather than BPI’s preferred term of “lean finely textured beef (LFTB)”.
It was this “media attack,” he said, that led BPI, in a matter of two weeks following the first report on March 7, 2012, to close three of its four processing plants and lay off 700 employees. Many customers stopped buying the product and volume fell from five million to 1.3 million pounds per week.
“The message to viewers is that ‘slime’ is disgusting, indedible, unhealthy and harmful,” Webb told the 16-member jury.
BPI is trying to prove that ABC knowingly made false statements or implications about LFTB, including that it does not constitute beef, that it isn’t safe for human consumption, that the company acted improperly in getting USDA approval for the product. The company said it will show evidence that ABC ignored countervailing facts to the contrary.
Under South Dakota law specifically on food libel cases, plaintiffs can win treble damages, which in BPI’s case, would amount to $5.7 billion.
ABC’s lawyer, Dane Butswinkas, said it was BPI’s secrecy, not ABC’s reporting, that was the cause of its hardships.
He said ABC was far from the first news organization to use the term “pink slime” and referenced a 2009 report in The New York Times.
And he said the product had a bad reputation, noting that the company began trying in 1986 to have it approved by the United States Department of Agriculture as fit for inclusion in hamburger or ground beef.
It wasn’t until 1993 that it gained that approval despite repeated scientific objections over the product’s safety and nutritional value, he said.
“This wasn’t journalists getting together and scheming to put out a false story to put a company they never heard of out of business to get viewers,” he said. Later, he added, “The truth is ABC’s reports were a small part of a much larger puzzle.”
He said that more than three months before ABC aired its first report, BPI’s three largest foodservice customers — McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell — decided they would stop buying the product.