Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Leading maker of 'pink slime' is all in with libel lawsuit against ABC News

The "pink slime" lawsuit by Beef Products Inc. against ABC News, "which many observers initially wrote off as a public relations ploy by a desperate company, is shaping up as one of the most high-stakes defamation court battles in U.S. history," P.J. Huffstutter and Martha Graybow write in a special report for the Reuters wire service. "The court fight could put modern television journalism on trial and highlight the power of language in the Internet age."

"Pink slime," an expert's nickname for what the industry calls "lean finely textured beef," or LFTB, was popularized by the network, and BPI blames it for a steep decline in company fortunes. "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," Reuters notes.

BPI was the leading manufacturer of the product,which is "exposed to tiny bursts of ammonium hydroxide to kill E. coli and other dangerous contaminants," Reuters reports. "Few Americans realized the product was a mainstay of fast-food burgers, school lunch tacos and homemade meatloaf."

Libel cases are hard to win, but BPI has some arguments: "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," Reuters reports. "ABC denies the allegations in the lawsuit and is seeking to have it thrown out."

Huffstutter and Graybow write, "For BPI to prove the defamation piece of its case, it would need to show that the network negligently reported a false statement of fact that injured its reputation. If BPI is deemed by the court to be a public rather than a private figure in the legal sense, it would have a higher bar to cross: The company would need to prove ABC knew the facts it was reporting were false or it recklessly disregarded the truth. . . . ABC never said BPI's product is dangerous, and courts have repeatedly offered broad protections for journalists in the course of their work. But by calling a food product 'slime' 137 times over the span of nearly four weeks on its newscasts, its website and on Twitter, according to BPI's tally, did ABC make the public think LFTB was unsafe?" (Read more)

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