Beef Industry Is Suing ABC for Billions Over Use of Term ‘Pink Slime’

The term creeped the hell out of consumers when an ABC News report popularized it in 2012.

Mar 17 2017, 5:08pm

An unappetizing ingredient with an equally unappetizing nickname, "pink slime'' has put ABC News in hot water this week as a South Dakota judge has ordered the network to head to trial over a hefty libel suit that could potentially cost the broadcaster nearly $6 billion.

The meaty drama began in 2012, when the network ran a multi-part exposé on what it called "pink slime," which, at the time, could allegedly be found in 70 percent of supermarket ground beef. As ABC reported, the controversial ingredient is a cheap filler known as "lean finely textured beef" in the industry, and is comprised of beef waste trimmings that have been sprayed with ammonia to kill off bacteria. Beef producers were not required to disclose this filler on labels, as USDA officials—who reportedly had close ties to the beef industry—allowed it to be labeled simply as meat.

Following the release of the reports, angry petitions urging the USDA to halt the use of pink slime abounded online, garnering hundreds of thousands of signatures, and the industry rapidly set out to eliminate usage of the ingredient.

Due to this overwhelming backlash, Beef Products Inc. (BPI), the South Dakota-based boneless beef producer at the center of the reports, brought a multi-billion dollar libel suit against ABC News, anchor Diane Sawyer, reporters David Kerley and Jim Avila, and Gerald Zirnstein, a former USDA microbiologist who coined the term "pink slime" and provided ABC News with much of their meat industry ammunition. BPI claimed that following the exposé, the company was forced to close three plants and perform massive layoffs after their major fast food clients cut ties with the producer out of fear of consumer retribution.

READ MORE: The Beef Industry Is Terrified of Meatless Monday

Though ABC News attempted to get the case dismissed in a federal court, this week, South Dakota Judge Cheryle Gering gave the go-ahead for a state trial by jury, dismissing only the defamation claims against Diane Sawyer, The Wall Street Journal reports. The total damages being sought by BPI is $1.9 billion, but under South Dakota libel laws that amount could potentially triple.

At a hearing last month, Gering asserted that "a jury could determine that there is clear and convincing evidence that ABC Broadcasting and Mr. Avila were reckless, that defendants had obvious reason to doubt the veracity of informants, and that they engaged in purposeful avoidance of the truth," according to a court transcript obtained by Reuters.

During the hearing, BPI's lawyer, J. Erik Connolly, claimed that ABC News "engaged in a disinformation campaign against a company that produces safe and nutritious beef, leading to billions of dollars in damages and hundreds of lost jobs."

Following Gering's decision, ABC released a statement, saying, "We are pleased that the Court dismissed all claims against Diane Sawyer," and "welcome the opportunity to defend the ABC News reports at trial and are confident that we will ultimately prevail."

The trial, which is scheduled for June 5, will settle the "beef" between the meat industry and the media, determining once and for all if BPI will milk ABC for all they're worth. However, the real winners here are undoubtedly the consumers, who can sleep easier at night without fearing the "pink slime" in their tacos and cheeseburgers.