by Marion Nestle
Sep 14 2012

Maker of “pink slime” sues everyone who calls it that

You have to hand it to BPI (Beef Products Inc), the producer of  “Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB)”—a.k.a. “pink slime.”  The company deserves a prize for chutzpah (translation: outrageous audacity).

It has just filed a defamation (“veggie libel”) lawsuit for $1.2 billion (!) against an amazing cast of characters:

  • ABC News (owned by Disney)
  • TV news anchor Diane Sawyer
  • ABC correspondent Jim Avila
  • ABC correspondent David Kerley
  • Gerald Zirnstein , former USDA employee who invented the term “pink slime”
  • Carl Custer, former USDA employee
  • Kit Foshee, whistleblower former BPI employee

South Dakota, apparently, has a veggie libel law to protect companies making food products from people who say mean things about them (recall: the Texas cattlemen vs. Oprah Winfrey).  Nobody has ever tested the constitutionality of veggie libel laws but I don’t know anyone who thinks they will stand up in court—free speech and all that.

BPI says the company lost 80% of its sales, a loss of $20 million per month, following news broadcasts about “pink slime.”  It had to close three facilities—in Texas, Kansas, and Iowa—and fire 650 workers at those places as well as 85 others at the company’s headquarters in South Dakota.

As I’ve written before, I see the “pink slime” episode as reflecting a lack of transparency in the beef industry and BPI’s efforts to defend its products as an example of power politics in action.

BPI is fighting back, hard.

The responses:

ABC News says, “The lawsuit is without merit. We will contest it vigorously.”

Bill Marler, the Seattle attorney who specializes in representing victims of food poisonings, has taken on this case and is representing Custer and Zirnstein.

Marler points out:

  • You can buy a lot of Pink Slime for $1.2 billion.
  • Someone should have told BPI’s lawyer it is not a great PR move to repeat the same charge that your client is now claiming harmed them in the first place.
  • The lawsuit is without merit.
  • We intend to defend this bogus, unwarranted and frivolous claim brought by BPI against these two former FSIS public employees.
  • We are also contemplating filing a counter-claim against PBI.

Let the charges and countercharges begin!

This one will be almost as much fun to watch as the equally absurd legal squabbles between the Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners Association over what to call High Fructose Corn Syrup.  I’ll do a post on that next week sometime.

  • What a joke! Parents should unite and sue BPI (and I’m sure some gov agency too!) for threatening the health of our children. This is ridiculous. Someday companies will make quality products that they can be proud of and consumers will support and wrap their arms around them. Cutting corners, using scraps, fillers and artificial ingredients and trying to cheapen food isn’t want the market needs.

  • There is much irony. The main point is that consumers don’t want it, so why do beef packers so want to add it? Net result: it’s value subtracted, for a variety of reasons, not value added (even though more lean). Consumers prefer unadulterated meat, real meat, not this hyper-processed stuff. This fits the stereotypes of the transfat industrial complex, in bashing natural saturated fats, (so they add pink slime). It adds to livestock bashing. Farmers should not support that (and should learn about the saturated fat issue, ie. “Bittman Bashes Butter”). Attacking your own consumers based upon what they want to buy from you hasn’t really worked here, has it.

    Definitions: beef = something from cattle, (but what parts!?). Burger = something ground up, that can be beef (see above) or other meat, (or not).

    Overall it adds up to promoting the idea that pink slime is better than meat that is not so processed. It degrades meat. Why would farmers want to do that? Why would farm state politicians want to do that? We then see their true colors?

  • margaret

    I don’t care what they want to call the “Product” I don’t want the kids to eat it. I don’t want to eat. Just like HFCS don’t care what you call it High Fructose Corn Syrup or Corn Sugar don’t want it in my food.
    It does not matter what you call it, if it was on the label then people would go out of their way to avoid it and they know it or they’d put it on the label!
    Thank you very much.

  • As I’ve said in other places: in the wildly unlikely event that BPI wins this lawsuit, who gets the money? I wonder if the employees they laid off will be compensated, as they should be – they had no part in BPI’s poor business plan.

    America pretty much knows what’s in hotdogs and bologna and still buys those…it’s finding out that something labeled “ground beef” contains the similar gelatinous, sanitized scraps that made them walk away from this product in droves.

  • John

    I agree with BPI – they are being defamed! The proper description for their produce should be “Black Slime.”

    In any case, I hope BPI’s use of “”LFTB” does not get confused with “LGBT” and get them in trouble with their republican super pac friends.

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  • This reminded me of the 1994 lawsuit by Philip Morris against ABC where it sought $10 billion when ABC News’ Day One program reported that cigarette companies “spike” their cigarettes with nicotine (they actually control nicotine by spraying however much nicotine extract they want for a particular brand).

    ABC’s Diane Sawyer had to apologize on-air because Philip Morris did not “spike” its cigarettes but just added as much nicotine as it wanted.

    Then I saw that Dan Webb was representing Beef Products Inc. and remembered him as a leading attorney for Philip Morris in the 1990s. Same cast of characters. I wonder if Diane Sawyer will again have to apologize because lean finely textured beefstuff is not actually “slime,” but just slimy (like Webb’s firm of Winston & Strawn).

    ABC capitulated to Philip Morris because the litigation was holding up ABC’s sale to Disney, not because it was likely to lose. I doubt ABC would capitulate to BPI here and can see no reason why it would lose.

  • Shaw

    Good for the beef industry for standing up for itself against a sensationalist press who thrive on scaring people–a mostly urban press with little understanding of how agriculture actually works in this country.

    It is now routine in the press to demonize so-called conventional agriculture. Ag has every right to defend itself.

  • Pleased that Bill Marler stepped up to ensure the individuals had legal help.

    I read the complaint, and it’s just astonishing. BPI is actually accusing ABC of defamation because ABC explained about why the ammonia is being used. It’s claiming defamation when ABC (and others) mention that the scraps used one were used in pet food (which is true).

    They’re even including, as part of their defamation lawsuit, comments that people made to stories. So do authors, like yourself, now have to police comments for potentially defamatory statements? Especially when ‘defamation’ is as broadly defined as BPI defines it?

    This is SLAPP, nothing more, nothing less. Clumsy SLAPP at that.

  • Michele hit it, in one, why people were outraged: when you buy hamburger at the store, you expect fresh ground beef. You certainly don’t expect beef scraps (yes, scraps) that have been heated to liquefy the fat, spun in a centrifuge, and then puffed with ammonia (I think I can use “puff” without getting sued).

  • Michael Bulger

    I would find it interesting if they are citing comments people post in response to stories on the ABC website. I just noticed a comment on another website that was in response to an article on this subject. The comment seemed fabricated. In fact, my first reaction was that it was written as satire. How much weight should these comments hold in court? Should untraced internet commenters be taken at face value?

  • Michael, yes they are. I’m trying to find the exhibits for the claim, but BPI hasn’t posted those. But they did reference comments from ABC stories, as some of “proof” that people are misled in one of the exhibits and provided examples within the body of the claim.

    Problem is: comments aren’t an indication of anything. Misinformation has a way of springing up, almost spontaneously. More seriously, we both know that corporate front groups do hire people to write comments in order to obfuscate genuine reader reaction.

    They must be hoping whoever is the judge is completely ignorant of how the internet works.

  • RykE

    The great thing about a free market economy is that we, the consumers, ultimately guide market demand. If you really want products with ingredients which we find offensive off the market, then STOP BUYING THEM.

    This is not about our children, it is about the public food supply, and the ability for companies to introduce highly processed comestible product, which had previously been classified in the processing industry as waste, back into our food supply.

    Fight back with your wallet. If you don’t like it, don’t by it, and make others aware of the offensive item through word of mouth, the media, and social networking. Avoid slander by using documented factual information, and do not draw conclusion. most intelligent folks, given the facts will be quick to form their own opinion.

  • Mary

    I’m too pure of an environmentalist to eat meat, so this doesn’t directly affect me. The rest of you aren’t as worthy as I am, of course. Same as purchasing organic foods. I’ve made a choice that makes me superior in judgment. I love my family more than you love yours, apparently.

    But that said, if you…er…lesser beings are going to kill an animal for food, you damn well better use every piece of it with as much efficiency as you can. Food waste represents an appalling environmental impact. You are contributing to the problem if you want this process to stop.

  • FarmerJane

    In his CRS report on LFTB, Joel L. Greene states that 40 to 45%, possibly even 50% of beef consumed is ground beef. About 80% of the 26 billion pounds of beef produced in the US is at least finished with a grain fed diet, resulting in a more marbled or fattier beef. Greene also says that some 2 Billion pounds of more “lean” beef is imported into the US annually to mix with the fatter beef trimmings. I would like to know how much of of the meat imported is “Lean Beef Trim” that ends up being mixed into LFTB. I saw an article in a dairy publication called “The Milkweed” issue of June 2012 that said 1.1 Billion pounds of “trimmings” are coming in from overseas, especially as the big four global meat corporations pretty much run the show in meat now.
    For consumers who want transparency, how can we get that? There is no country of origin labeling requirement for meat or dairy. Consumers have no way of knowing the supply chain, even we farmers don’t know. If you even averaged burger consumption of the typical American, many of Dr. Nestle’s readers have gobbled down at least 4.5 pounds per capita of LFBT and imported meats without even knowing it and probably have done so for years. Transparency? This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the US food supply. We lost transparency a long time ago. Farmers have seen it coming for decades as we witnessed food sector consolidation taking over. We tried to warn you all years ago, but few listened to us farmers.
    And, to Mary, “the environmentalist”. yeah, its nice to say that every part of the cow should be used. But I wonder what the impact of importing the cheapest of cheap meat to mix into our cheapest of cheap hamburger is environmentally. I’m watching dairy farms here in the northeast who should be paid a decent price for the cattle sold, but instead have to compete with overseas farmers in a race to the bottom for cheapest inputs into global meat corporations. A side impact of Drought 2012 is that herds are being liquidated at rock bottom prices, destroying farms and ranches who will never recover. Rural areas of the US are being decimated as farms give way to large lot subdivisions. So, how is this devaluation of rural America good for the environment in the end?

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