ABC News’ reporting on food has gotten it into trouble once again. Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), the target of a series of stories earlier in 2012, has filed suit against the network for $1.2 billion.
BPI is charging ABC with “defamation, product and food disparagement, tortious interference with business relationships, and other wrongs” in a 263-page complaint. The lawsuit charges the network made “nearly 200 false and disparaging statements regarding BPI and its product, lean finely textured beef.”
The suit is based on ABC stories that began March 7 and depicted lean beef manufactured by BPI as “pink slime,” a term used by an activist and repeatedly cited by the network. The suit claims the term “pink slime” was used 137 times by the network and used as a synonym for the beef. “There is not a more offensive way of describing a food product than to call it ‘slime,’ which is a noxious, repulsive and filthy fluid not safe for human consumption,” the suit claims.
Those ABC stories went on for nearly two months, causing retailers to drop the product. The suit alleges that “ABC sought to interfere and damage BPI’s business relationships with grocery and ground beef processors.” BPI shut down three plants and 650 workers lost their jobs because of a decline in demand for the product.
The suit names ABC News, along with anchor Diane Sawyer, senior national correspondent Jim Avila, correspondent David Kerley and three people ABC interviewed for its series of stories. Those three included former USDA employees Gerald Zirnstein and Carl Custer, along with former BPI employee Kit Foshee.
The suit “seeks recovery of actual and consequential damages in excess of $400 million, statutory and treble damages pursuant to South Dakota’s Agricultural Food Products Disparagement Act and punitive damages.”
BPI argues that ABC’s attack began with chef Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” in March 2010. According to the suit, “Oliver said that, in the industry, the trimmings are referred to as ‘shit.’” He also called them “not fit for human consumption.” The president of the American Meat Institute informed the network its reporting was “false and malicious” and AMI “provided ABC accurate information regarding LFTB and BPI’s process for producing LFTB.”
One notable error the suit targeted was calling Foshee the “number two” person at BPI. “Foshee was a quality assurance employee at BPI who was fired” because he opposed “more rigorous safety procedures,” the suit alleged.
The suit quoted Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., who called this a “perfect example of mainstream media completely disconnected from reality.”
BPI, founded in 1981, manufactures USDA-approved lean finely textured beef, separated from fattier trimmings and sold to be mixed in with other ground beef to produce a leaner result. The suit referred to BPI as “an American success story” and the press release underlined the family nature of the firm.
"For more than 30 years, our family has built and operated companies that are committed to providing consumers with wholesome, safe and nutritious lean beef. We've created thousands of good jobs for Americans and our lean finely textured beef has made the leaner ground beef that consumers desire more affordable," said Eldon Roth, founder and CEO of BPI. "The blatantly false and disparaging statements made about our lean beef have done more than hurt my family and our companies; they have jeopardized the future of our employees and their families."
Two recent examinations of the beef industry showed the devastating impact of the fight over lean finely textured beef. According to an analysis by two Iowa State University economics professors, that controversy cost at least $573 million dollars.
That report detailed how the loss of “300 million pounds of lean finely textured beef that would have been processed through the end of 2012 was worth $273 million in added value to the economy.” That included a loss of $90 million in payroll and nearly 2,000 jobs “in the areas of transportation, handling, construction and public utilities as well as retailers and foodservice businesses.”
That economic analysis claimed there was an additional $300 million “in lost sales to the rest of the economy.”
This is not the first major suit ABC has faced over its food reporting. In 1996, a federal grand jury in Greensboro, N.C., found ABC guilty of trespassing and fraud for its coverage of Food Lion. The case didn’t hinge on the journalistic merits of undercover reporting, but on the fraud used by producers to obtain jobs and the illegal taping inside stores without the company’s permission. Food Lion was awarded $5.5 million, but the verdict was eventually overturned.
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