The slimiest news coverage of 2012 has nothing to do with the presidential election. It concerns a massive ABC News campaign against an American beef company. Led by national correspondent Jim Avila, the network bombarded a South Dakota firm with a seemingly endless barrage of stories claiming that its lean beef was – it doesn’t get uglier than this – “pink slime.” According to that company, ABC’s reports cost it hundreds of millions of dollars, and cost more than 700 people their jobs.
Now that company is suing ABC – for $1.2 billion.
The heart of ABC’s campaign lasted nearly a month as story after story, wave upon wave attacked every aspect of Beef Products Inc. – its record, its reputation and the food it makes. ABC called the USDA-approved lean beef made by the firm “filler,” “not really beef,” and even “economic fraud.” The network has used the term “pink slime” at least 178 times between newscasts and Avila’s Twitter feed.
That is the kind of assault that the national outlets reserve for true villains. Except in this case, Beef Products, Inc. says it has done nothing wrong. And they back up their position with facts.
In fact, BPI has been doing just about everything right, and to great applause. It has received awards from the Consumer Federation of America, International Association for Food Protection and National Meat Association. According to the USDA, lean finely textured beef (LFTB) is safe and healthy; and industry sources acknowledge it is less expensive and an essential component of lean ground beef. And, newsflash, Americans have safely consumed 5 billion pounds of it over the last 20 years.
None of that has mattered. One activist reporter, one out-of-control network and a couple, surly former USDA employees wanted to destroy BPI and almost succeeded. In less than an hour of actual broadcast time, ABC’s culinary crusade nearly sabotaged a family company that took more than 30 years to build.
BPI decided it was left with only one option: to file suit. In its Sept. 13 complaint, the company charged the network made “nearly 200 false and disparaging statements regarding BPI and its product, lean finely textured beef.” Statements like these would make Pinocchio proud:
- “Defendants repeatedly told consumers that LFTB was ‘widely known as’ or was ‘commonly referred to as’ ‘pink slime.’” Only it wasn’t. The term wasn’t commonly used until ABC shouted it to millions of viewers night after night.
- The whole premise of the ABC report was that lean beef had been called “pink slime” back in 2002 at the USDA. But even the USDA couldn’t find any copy of such an e-mail, according to BPI’s complaint.
- ABC relied on claims from Kit Foshee, who they said, was the “number two” person at BPI. Not ever true, says BPI. Instead, BPI says he was a “quality assurance employee who was fired” because he didn’t support “more rigorous safety procedures.”
All of this happened after ABC had problems with its previous coverage. Back in 2011, ABC’S chef Jamie Oliver said the beef was “not fit for human consumption” and was bleeped when he described the lean beef as “s---.” According to Oliver’s “Food Revolution,” BPI was washing the beef in a “water and ammonia solution.”
BPI responded to those allegations with a letter from the head of the American Meat Institute who told them Oliver’s comments were “false and malicious.” He then gave the network more accurate information. ABC’s response came less than a year later. The network ignored the information they had been given and added even more errors.
The “news” team generated a national uproar as viewer comments flooded into the on-air coverage and the website, outraged by the thought of “pink slime.” In its complaint the company quoted some of the typical comments still available on ABCNews.com that include: “Cancer stew, anyone?” or “I wouldn’t feed it to my dog!”
According to the complaint, the stories caused incredible harm to the company and the industry. For example in March, before the “pink slime” stories oozed across the TV, BPI sold 4.9 million pounds of lean finely textured beef and made an average profit of $2.3 million each week. By the end of the month, that had dropped to 1.8 million pounds and a loss of $368,000 – per week. And don’t forget the more than 700 lost jobs. BPI has tried to adapt, but three of its plants are still closed.
The company is asking for $400 million in damages, but under South Dakota agricultural disparagement laws, ABC News may be on the hook for three times those damages, or $1.2 billion.
ABC News almost singlehandedly damaged a business with what the company has rightly called a “disinformation campaign.” The network first attacked the beef, was told it what it was reporting was inaccurate and then it came back with a vengeance.
Author and journalism entrepreneur Steven Brill came down hard on ABC, calling the suit “the most detailed, persuasive complaint of its kind that I have ever read.” Brill, who founded Court TV, The American Lawyer Magazine and 10 legal newspapers, knows a bit about media law. He said that ABC appears to have disregarded any opposing view may establish a “‘reckless disregard’ for the truth that would put ABC in real legal jeopardy.”
BPI’s fight began with ABC’s deliberately harmful use of the term “pink slime,” and who can blame them? “There is not a more offensive way of describing a food product than to call it ‘slime,’ which is a noxious, repulsive, and filthy fluid not safe for human consumption,” they wrote.
That’s a good way to describe the truly disgusting ABC coverage – “noxious, repulsive” and “not safe for human consumption.”