Beef Products Inc. (BPI) has filed a defamation lawsuit against ABC News, Diane Sawyer and two former U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) employees, among others, claiming that they “knowingly and intentionally published nearly 200 false and disparaging statements regarding the company and its product, lean finely textured beef (LFTB).” Beef Prods. Inc. v. ABC, Inc., No. n/a (Cir. Ct., Union Cnty., S. Dak., filed September 13, 2012). The company is seeking $1.2 billion in damages.
At one time, LFTB was used in some 70 percent of ground beef; it is made from fatty scraps remaining after cattle carcasses are cut into steaks and roasts. Bits of lean meat are heated and separated from the fat in a centrifuge, then treated with ammonium hydroxide gas to rid the product of E. coli or other pathogens. BPA claims that it sold more than 3.7 billion pounds of LFTB between 2003 and 2012 and its average weekly sales exceeded 5.5 million pounds with operating profits of $2.3 million per week. According to the company, the disinformation campaign about its product spread across national media outlets and on social media sites, leading fast food restaurants, large supermarket chains and most school lunch programs to stop using it. The company reportedly suspended operations in three of its four plants and eliminated more than 650 jobs.
According to the complaint, ABC aired celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” beginning in March 2010, and about a year later, Oliver “made multiple false statements regarding the process used by BPI to produce LFTB.” While BPI apparently informed ABC that the statements about its product were false, “ABC did not issue an apology. ABC did not issue a retraction. ABC did not insist that Oliver correct the various false statements he presented during his show.” The defendant then, according to the complaint, broadcast multiple stories about BPI and LFTB throughout March 2012 and published 14 different online reports during the same time period. Defendant Gerald Zimstein, a former USDA microbiologist, allegedly dubbed LFTB “pink slime” and “appeared on ABC broadcasts and was quoted in ABC’s online reports.”
Among other matters, BPI contends that “[c]onsistent with the use of the phrase ‘pink slime’ to describe LFTB, Defendants made false statements to convince consumers that LFTB is not beef, or even meat. . . . Defendants stated that selling ground beef with LFTB amounted to an ‘economic fraud’ because LFTB was a ‘substitute’ for beef. These statements were intentionally and knowingly false statements by Defendants. LFTB is 100% beef.” See Sioux City Journal, September 12, 2012; Huff Post Food, September 13, 2012.