In response to public outrage, including an online petition demanding the USDA remove Pink Slime from the school lunch program, Pink Slime producer Beef Products, Inc. was forced to shut down three of its four plants after consumers engaged in a swift and brutal social networking campaign.
Now Beef Products, Inc. is suing ABC news in a defamation lawsuit. Beef Products alleges that “ABC News with Diane Sawyer” got the facts wrong, while “knowingly” engaging in a “disinformation campaign” against the company.
As Ad Age points out, the term “Pink Slime” was originally coined by a scientist way back in 2002, but last March, ABC News aired a series of scathing reports about the product.
The public outcry didn’t go mainstream until April 2011, when celebrity chef Jamie Oliver criticized Pink Slime on his “Food Revolution” TV show, which was carried on ABC.
Oliver demonstrated how pink slime is made from beef scraps that are soaked in ammonium hydroxide, and then ground into a thick pinkish soup.
Oliver claimed then that pink slime is in 70% of U.S. beef, and served to the public by fast food restaurants and public school cafeterias.
“The use of treated scrap meat to me as a chef and a food lover is shocking,”Oliver said. “Basically we’re taking a product that would be sold in the cheapest form for dogs and making it fit’ for humans”
The complaint numbers 257 pages and includes a detailed accounting of ABC’s reporting. It alleges that from March 7 to April 3, the network aired 11 broadcasts “attacking” Beef Products and its product.
One legal expert not involved in the case said ABC News has precedence on its side.
“Even if it turns out that [the reporting] is not correct or inaccurate in some way, there is an additional showing that the plaintiffs have to make that there is actual malice, meaning that it’s either reckless or knowingly false, which is a very, very high burden,” said Randall Miller, a partner with Arnold & Porter law firm in Virginia who has experience with defamation cases.
“And there’s a strong First Amendment, public policy [reason], for courts to throw these cases out of court right out of the gate.”
Beef Products’ lawyer is Dan K. Webb, a highly respected attorney from Chicago, who has represented General Electric, Microsoft Corp., Phillip Morris and other high-profile clients and is a former U.S. attorney.
“The complaint is very thorough and detailed and it’s going to be probably taken pretty seriously,” Miller said.
“If it can survive a motion to dismiss, then it can get into the discovery process and make life hard for ABC News.”
But one food expert said the lawsuit is the wrong way to go from a public-relations perspective. It’s “absolutely a bad move,” said Phil Lempert, who runs supermarketguru.com.
Lempert cited a mid-1990s lawsuit by cattle producers against Oprah Winfrey, who made mad cow disease and beef safety the topic of discussion for a show. “It just kept mad cow on the headlines much longer,” Mr. Lempert said.
Beef Products’ lawyer may be a “highly respected” attorney from Chicago, but he of all people should know you can’t sue the media for reporting on whistleblower complaints and public opinion.