The major producer of the lean, finely textured beef product that recently became the center of the controversy over the quality of raw ingredients used in school lunches is suing ABC and its subsidiary ABC News for defamation. Beef Products, which filed its lawsuit last Thursday, says that the network’s campaign against the company, led by Diane Sawyer and reporters Jim Avila and David Kerley — who are listed as co-defendants — resulted in losses of more than $400 million.
In the brief it submitted as part of the lawsuit, the company is demanding triple damages in accordance with the South Dakota’s Agricultural Food Products Disparagement Act, which could end up costing ABC nearly $1.2 billion. The plaintiff alleges that during the thirty days ABC covered the “pink slime” story, it made nearly 200 statements that could be considered either outright false or very misleading.
The scientist who coined the term “pink slime” to describe the beef product produced by the company, US Department of Agriculture microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein, and who served as the main source for many of the ABC stories on the product, is also named in the suit.
Although ABC wouldn’t directly comment on the lawsuit by saying that its policy is not to make statements on ongoing litigation, senior vice president of ABC News Jeffrey Schneider said that the company plans to contest it vigorously and believes it to be without merit.
But the network noted that many other media outlets have reported on lean, finely textured beef, from USA Today to an online petition to MSNBC. ABC also singled out a 2009 New York Times investigation that published the first-known reference to “pink slime,” coined by a former U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist, Gerald Zirnstein, in 2002. (Zirnstein, incidentally, served as a “whistleblower” in ABC News’ own investigation and is named in the suit.)
Dan Webb, the attorney representing Beef Products, said that ABC was picked as the defendant because its volume of the stories on pink slime exceeded every other news outlet. Overall, Webb pointed to more than twenty-five stories ABC did on pink slime between television news reports, articles for its online portal and various social-media messages.
Athens Review consulted with Laura Handman, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington, who is also an attorney specializing in libel cases. She believes that Beef Products have a tough road to victory in this lawsuit, especially as they’ll be required to prove that ABC knew that the statements it was making were false at the time they were made.
Beef Products, according to its attorney, has been forced to shutter three of its four manufacturing facilities after sales dropped 80 percent immediately after the media reports. The company, he added, has laid off 700 employees.