ABC News was hit with a $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit on Thursday by a South Dakota meat processor that accused it of misleading viewers into believing that a product that critics have dubbed “pink slime” was unsafe.
Beef Products Inc sued over ABC reports aired in March and April about the company and its “lean finely textured beef.”
In court papers, the company said ABC falsely told viewers that the beef product was not safe, not healthy, and not even meat, and that the reports have cost it much of its business and hundreds of millions of dollars in profit.
“The lawsuit is without merit,” Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president of ABC News, a unit of Walt Disney Co, said in a statement. “We will contest it vigorously.”
Six individuals were also sued, including ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, and the reporters Jim Avila and David Kerley.
Another defendant is Gerald Zirnstein, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist credited with coining the term “pink slime,” and who appeared in ABC’s reports. He could not be immediately reached for comment.
ABC conducted a “sustained and vicious disinformation campaign,” Beef Products’ lawyer Dan Webb, chairman of Winston & Strawn and a former U.S. attorney in Chicago, said at a press briefing.
“To call a food product slime is the most pejorative term that could be imagined,” he said. “ABC’s constant repetition of it, night after night after night, had a huge impact on the consuming public.”
Beef Products accused ABC News of acting with actual malice in producing its reports, a high legal standard to meet.
“These kinds of cases are hard to win, because courts have given media many protections in reporting on matters of public concern,” said Bruce Rosen, a partner and media law specialist at McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli in Florham Park, New Jersey.
“Constitutionally, the plaintiff has to show ABC knew what it was broadcasting was false, or had very strong reasons to know, and ignored them,” he said. “It’s a very hard standard to overcome. Dan Webb will have his hands full.”
Beef Products is the largest U.S. producer of lean finely textured beef, a filler made from fatty trimmings that are sprayed with ammonia to kill bacteria.
The Department of Agriculture approved use of the product in ground beef in 1993, and affirmed its safety in March.
But that has failed to quiet critics, which have included food safety activists as well as animal rights organizations.
Large customers have also taken note, with companies such as McDonald’s Corp, Yum Brands Inc’s Taco Bell and supermarket chain Safeway Inc having halted their purchases of the product.
Other courts have addressed similar claims in the past.
In 2000, a federal appeals court rejected defamation claims by Texas cattle ranchers against talk show host Oprah Winfrey over a “dangerous food” episode of her eponymous show, where she was accused of falsely depicting U.S. beef as unsafe in the wake of a British panic over “mad cow” disease.
PRODUCT DISPARAGEMENT ALLEGED
Beef Products filed its 263-page complaint in Union County Circuit Court in South Dakota. It said ABC included nearly 200 false, defamatory and disparaging statements in on-air and online reports, and in social media postings.
Based in Dakota Dunes, just west of Sioux City South Dakota, Beef Products also accused ABC of interfering with its business dealings with grocery store chains and ground beef processors.
It said ABC’s “campaign” against it actually began in April 2011, when the network broadcast a show featuring British chef Jamie Oliver that included false statements about the type of beef trimmings it used.
Beef Products said the media furor forced it shut three of its four plants and eliminate more than 700 jobs, roughly half its workforce, and cost more than $20 million of revenue each month.
It also said weekly sales of the beef filler have fallen to less than 2 million pounds per week from nearly 5 million.
Beef Products said it is seeking $400 million of compensatory damages representing lost profit, which could be tripled under South Dakota’s Agricultural Food Products Disparagement Act, plus punitive damages.
Zirnstein had used the term “pink slime” in a 2002 email to coworkers after touring a Beef Products plant. His email was later released to The New York Times.
The case is Beef Products Inc et al v. American Broadcasting Cos et al, Circuit Court of South Dakota, Union County, No. 12-292.