By Mira Soni
South Dakota-based meat processing company, Beef Products Inc. (BPI), is suing the ABC Television Network over reports aired by the network in 2012 that spoke negatively of BPI’s main product, Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB). BPI is seeking nearly $2 billion in damages under a 1994 state law that criminalizes the knowing disparagement of agricultural products.
ABC’s 2012 reports investigated BPI’s use of LFTB in ground beef. LFTB, known colloquially as “pink slime”, are processed beef trimmings. According to a New York Times report, these trimmings were used in ground beef production across the country.
The product is created by placing trimmings in centrifuges to separate lean meat from fat. The lean meat is then treated with ammonia to remove pathogens. That process, the company has said, was perfected over years and can produce 10 to 20 extra pounds of lean beef per cow.
In its suit against ABC, BPI argues that the television network aired falsehoods about LFTB, stating that the meat was unsafe and unhealthy. Following the ABC reports, grocers stopped purchasing BPI’s meat, and the company began rapidly losing profits. BPI eventually closed ¾ of their processing plants and reduced their workforce by 50%.
Central to the suit is the claim that ABC reporters acted with “actual malice” to intentionally harm BPI. In an interview with South Dakota news outlet Argus Leader, Cattle Buyers Weekly publisher Steve Kay said he believed they did.
“I’m trying to be as neutral as possible, but by most standards of responsible journalism it appeared to be distorted and biased and extremely unreasonable,” Kay said.
But leading First Amendment scholars disagree.
Roy Gutterman, the director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University, said the laws were intended to intimidate and chill news coverage. He noted that the term “pink slime,” which was used in ABC’s broadcast to describe LFTB, was consistent with language used in the industry.
“The pink slime case is an affront to the First Amendment,” he said in an email. “The damages being sought are outrageous.”
The case goes to trial this week, and is set to end in mid-July.