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'Pink slime' lawsuit raises questions

Published on September 28, 2012 3:01AM

Last changed on October 26, 2012 9:11AM


Beef Products Inc., one of the primary makers of lean finely textured beef -- aka "pink slime" -- has filed a $1.2 billion lawsuit against ABC News, alleging the television network's news stories defamed the South Dakota company and its product.

We find ourselves in a delicate position. We encourage aggressive reporting on issues important to readers and viewers, no matter the subject matter or the consequences. But if BPI's allegations are true, ABC repeatedly reported information it knew was inaccurate, portrayed the product in a false light, and directly caused hundreds of workers to lose their jobs.

For more than 20 years, lean finely textured beef has been mixed with ground beef to produce a final product with a specific fat content. The final product is sold by many retailers and used in school lunch programs. The leanest ground beef on the market contains more lean finely textured beef.

To manufacture the product, beef trimmings are heated, the fat spun out and a puff of ammonium hydroxide is used to kill any pathogens that might result from the heating process. The process is more efficient than having employees in the processing plant trim fat from muscle meat by hand.

The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration say the process is safe. But while the use of ammonia is common in food processing, the practice has come under fire by consumer advocates. Earlier this year, Internet postings again drew attention to "pink slime," the term for LFTB coined in 2002 by a microbiologist at the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Jamie Oliver, the host of ABC's "Food Revolution," had earlier made claims about LFTB that were disputed by the meat industry. In a broadcast in March, Oliver said the product is unfit for human consumption. ABC broadcast other news reports and posted stories on its website questioning the safety of LFTB and reporting the consumer backlash against the product.

BPI claims ABC broadcast nearly 200 inaccurate statements about LFTB, and that the network repeated the statements even after being informed of the errors. The company says the broadcasts and the ensuing controversy caused demand to plummet and forced it to shut down several plants and lay off more than half its employees.

ABC News has vowed to fight the lawsuit, saying it's without merit.

We're not so sure. The case outlined by BPI in its lawsuit makes a convincing argument that ABC repeatedly made claims it had credible reason to believe were false. If so, that represents malice and a reckless disregard for the truth, and should be enough to get the case to trial.

But BPI's lawsuit tells only part of the story. We look forward to reading ABC's detailed response.


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