ABC News was hit with a $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit 9/13 by South Dakota meat processor Beef Products Inc. that accused it of misleading viewers into believing a product that critics have dubbed “pink slime” was unsafe.
Beef Products sued over ABC reports aired in March and April about the nation’s largest producer of “lean finely textured beef.”
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, reported Reuters.
Lean finely textured beef is 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.
The suit claims ABC falsely told viewers that its beef product was not safe, not healthy and not even meat, resulting in the 31-year-old company’s loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in profit and roughly half its employees.
Large customers have also taken note, with McDonald’s Taco Bell and Safeway halting purchases of the product.
“The lawsuit is without merit,” Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president of ABC News, 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, Reuters said.
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. ABC’s constant repetition of it, night after night after night, had a huge impact on the consuming public.”
The other defendants are Gerald Zirnstein, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist credited with coining the term “pink slime;” former USDA employee Carl Custer and former Beef Products employee Kit Foshee. All appeared or were quoted in ABC’s reports.
William Marler, a lawyer for Zirnstein and Custer, said: “The complaint is completely bogus and frivolous, and we will defend these public employees vigorously.”
Beef Products also accused ABC News of acting with actual malice in producing its reports, a high legal standard to meet, considering protections in reporting on matters of public concern.
Beef Products also accused ABC of interfering with its business dealings with grocery store chains and ground beef processors, Reuters said.
RBR-TVBR observation: The fact that Zirnstein was the one that coined the phrase first will help ABC News dramatically here. However, if it can be proven that ABC News’ actions went beyond reporting and willfully and repeatedly harmed the company’s business relationships with grocery chains and ground beef processors, there may be some damages proved. Reporting a story is one thing, using the press pass to methodically destroy a company that has not committed any crimes is another. We’re not sure how this might go.