On Monday, June 5, the largest libel suit in history opened in South Dakota over whether a product is “pink slime” or “lean finely textured beef.” The trial pits Beef Products Inc., the plaintiff, against ABC News, which the Walt Disney Co. owns.
At stake: $1.9 billion. That’s what Beef Products is seeking in actual damages. But under South Dakota law, that figure could rise to a total of $5.7 billion if the jury also awards punitive damages of $3.8 billion.
The case is based on 2012 televised reports by ABC News that, Beef Products Inc. (BPI) says, defamed the company. In the 20/20 news broadcasts, the lawsuit says, ABC and reporter Jim Avila called its ground-beef product “pink slime,” made factual errors and omitted information.
BPI says that after the 2012 reports, its revenues dropped 80 percent, so the company had to close three of its four processing plants, according to the lawsuit.
How the product is made
According to BPI’s website, beefproducts.com, the company’s signature product is safe. The section titled “BPI Lean Finely Textured Beef — Why It’s Good” explains, “Our beef is typically 94% to 97% lean and is a key ingredient to making low-fat ground beef or any other food in which lean finely textured beef is an essential ingredient.”
In the website section “Making Lean Beef,” BPI explains its process: “Beef comes to us in the form of trim. Beef trim is the meat and fat remaining after larger cuts of beef have been ‘trimmed’ to meet customer specifications and is most frequently used to make ground beef. …
“The process of converting the incoming trim into lean finely textured beef uses very specialized equipment like centrifuges, as well as our pH enhancement process. We remove the fat from the beef, leaving a finished lean beef that is typically 94-97% lean, and is a key ingredient to making low-fat ground beef.”
After the beef is made leaner, it is made cleaner, BPI’s website says under the section “pH Enhancement”: “BPI’s pH enhancement process … relies upon slightly increasing the level of ammonium hydroxide already present in beef in order to elevate its pH. By combining a very small amount (measured in parts per million) of ammonia gas with the naturally occurring moisture in beef, we produce ammonium hydroxide. … One result of this food safety system is the dramatic reduction in the number of potential pathogens that may be present in foods, such as E. coli.”
USDA gave seal of approval to Lean Finely Textured Beef in 1993
In the aftermath of ABC’s 2012 reports, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, under-secretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, posted “Setting the Record Straight on Beef” on her department’s website.
In the March 22, 2012, post, Hagen wrote, “The process used to produce Lean Fine Textured Beef is safe and has been used for a very long time. And adding LFTB to ground beef does not make that ground beef any less safe to consume.”
ABC: Coverage was accurate, protected
ABC has said that its coverage was accurate and protected by the First Amendment’s provision for freedom of speech.
Gerald Zirnstein, a USDA microbiologist, is frequently credited with the first use of “pink slime” to describe BPI’s lean finely textured beef (LFTB) product. He used the term in a 2002 email to colleagues after touring Beef Products Inc. plant. He originally was named as one of the defendants but has been dismissed from the case.
According to Reuters, BPI attorney Dan Webb said Monday in court that ABC used the term “pink slime” more than 350 times during the reports, which aired in spring 2012.
A variety of retailers and school districts stopped using Beef Products’ lean finely textured beef after the broadcasts. That led to the decline in business and resulting layoffs, according to the suit, titled Beef Products Inc. et al v. American Broadcasting Cos. et al.