Reuters / A year ago, Beef Products Inc. had four state-of-the art plants, more than 1,300 employees and was expanding aggressively.
The meat company was the leading maker of “lean finely textured beef,” a low-fat product made from chunks of beef, including trimmings, and exposed to tiny bursts of ammonium hydroxide to kill E. coli and other contaminants. Few realized it was a mainstay of fast-food burgers, school lunch tacos and homemade meat loaf.
Today, the South Dakota company’s revenues have plummeted from more than $650 million to about $130 million a year, and three of its plants are shuttered. Company officials blame the abrupt falloff on a series of ABC News broadcasts a year ago that repeatedly called its product “pink slime.” BPI is now suing the network, and star anchor Diane Sawyer, for $1.2 billion in one of the most high-stakes defamation court battles in U.S. history.
The case also underscores an intensifying war between the farm sector and its critics over how food is made. Although the media furor over “lean finely textured beef” has waned in the U.S., the nation’s meat packers and ground beef manufacturers — pinched by a dwindling cattle supply and rising meat prices — are only now slowly reintroducing similar products to the marketplace.
Tough case to win
Libel cases are extremely difficult to win in the U.S. because of strong press protections, and ABC has compelling legal arguments. However interviews with BPI’s founders, agriculture industry officials and legal experts, as well as a review of federal documents and court records, suggest that ABC’s reports had certain flaws that could resonate with a jury: ABC’s lead reporter on the story mischaracterized BPI’s product on Twitter; the network failed to clearly describe on-air how the company’s beef wound up in the nation’s food supply; and ABC did not reveal in an interview with a former BPI employee that he had lost a wrongful termination lawsuit against the company.
The case also could shine an unflattering light on BPI. Many consumers find the notion of processed beef unsavory, and the lawsuit could open the door to the company having to reveal closely guarded information about its processes that could be used in other litigation.
At the crux of the debate are two little words: pink slime — a term believed to have been coined by a USDA scientist after touring a BPI plant. BPI lawyers contend the common dictionary definition for slime is a “vile or disgusting matter” and using the term made consumers believe the company’s beef was something foul.
ABC’s lawyers, in their motion to dismiss the case, argued that slime is a fitting description of the company’s product, arguing a “more neutral” definition is a “thick, sticky, slippery substance.”
“It’s hard to imagine ‘slime’ being a positive term, but at the same time, was it used with malice?” said Gene Policinski of the First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum “This is going to be a very tough thing for BPI to prove.”
Regardless, ABC’s lawyers also argue the term is the kind of “rhetorical hyperbole” that is constitutionally protected.
BPI founders Eldon and Regina Roth say they plan to pursue their fight against ABC even if it takes years and tens of millions of dollars in legal fees.
“We have to do this,” said Eldon Roth. “We have no other choice.”