Dan Webb, chairman of Winston & Strawn LLP legal firm, said that he had never seen such a defamatory campaign with the scope, length and amount of people affected as he talked about the $1.2 billion dollar lawsuit that Beef Products Inc. filed against ABC News yesterday. The suit, which is also asking for punitive damages, was filed in the South Dakota circuit court and named American Broadcasting Companies Inc. and ABC News Inc. as defendants, as well as reporters Diane Sawyer, Jim Avila and David Kerley as well as Gerald Zirnstein, Carl Custer and Kit Foshee, all of whom contributed to the alleged defamatory broadcasts.

BPI has counted nearly 200 alleged defamatory statements against the company and its lean, finely textured beef (LFTB), both in televised broadcasts and online reports. The statements were made in the midst of a consumer outcry against LFTB, which critics named “pink slime.” Webb mentioned in a press confreence yesterday that ABC called the product “pink slime” more than 130 times.

The net effect of the coverage was that consumers lost confidence in LFTB and became convinced that the product was unsafe. As a result, said Craig Letch, director of food safety and quality assurance, BPI, 30 years' of hard work and success were undermined in less than 30 days of news coverage. BPI has closed three of its four processing plants and let go of approximately 700 employees. The company lost about 80 percent of its business due to the outcry against LFTB, he said.

The false statements against LFTB included the following, Webb explained:

  • LFTB is “pink slime”

  • LFTB is not beef or meat

  • LFTB is filler for ground beef or meat

  • LFTB is a substitute for ground beef

  • LFTB is produced from “waste,” “scraps,” and “low-grade trimmings”

  • LFTB is “economic fraud” and “food fraud”

  • LFTB was once only used in dog food and cooking oil

  • LFTB is more like gelatin than beef

  • LFTB comes mostly from connective tissue

The false implications created by these statements, Webb said, included:

  • LFTB is not safe for public consumption

  • LFTB is not nutritious

BPI engaged in improper conduct in getting USDA approval for LFTB
Webb also claimed that ABC News interfered with the business relationship between BPI and its customers. The network included in a “blacklist” in its broadcast of retail outlets that carried ground beef made with LFTB. Once a chain announced it would no longer carry the product, its name would be removed from the list.

The suit is asking for punitive damages because the network was given a large volume of factual information by BPI and third parties about LFTB prior to the broadcasts, Webb said, meaning that ABC was aware of the false statements as they made them.

The lawsuit itself is more than 250 pages in length, and Webb said that he plans to call “hundreds” of witnesses to testify to the actual qualities of LFTB. ABC News said in a statement that the lawsuit is without merit and that it will vigorously defend itself in court.

Source: BPI, ABC News