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After ABC News ran a series last year that gave Beef Products Inc.’s ‘lean finely textured beef’ the unflattering moniker ‘pink slime,’ the story went viral. Blogs and newspapers all over the world spread the message about the mixture containing chunks of beef, trimmings and ammonium hydroxide (to kill E.coli and other harmful contaminants) that was regularly used in hamburgers, taco meat and other beef products. As a result, BPI’s annual revenue shrank from $650 million to $130 million. So BPI hired the best lawyer they could find now they’re suing ABC News, anchor Diane Sawyer and a host of others in a $1.2 billion suit that Reuters says is shaking out to be one of the biggest defamation cases in US history.
BPI insists that a lead reporter for ABC News misrepresented the product on twitter and the series failed to properly explain how ‘pink slime’ came to feature so prominently in the food system. Eldon Roth from South Dakota-based BPI told Reuters that they are going after the broadcasting company with everything they have – even if it takes years and costs millions of dollars. “We have to do this,” he said.
But ABC, owned by Walt Disney Inc., is unlikely to back down without a fight. Not only are consumers becoming increasingly weary of the food they are being served in light of the horse meat scandal, GMOs, and other industrial faux pas but the “lawsuit could open the door to the company having to reveal closely guarded information about its processes that could be used in other litigation,” according to Reuters.
Because press freedoms are carefully protected in the United States, this is not an easy case. But it is an important one because if BPI wins, representing “big food,” that could have unpalatable consequences for the future of environmental and health reporting.