A settlement has been reached in a highly publicized defamation case between one of the country’s biggest broadcasters and a beef processing company.
The case – which saw Beef Products Inc. [BPI] (a beef processor which used to supply some of the world’s biggest fast food franchisers with meat) and ABC News battle it out for three weeks in a South Dakota court room, dates back to 2012.
During that year, ABC released a series of reports about a beef product they referred to as ‘pink slime’. BPI claimed these reports – which used the ‘pink slime’ phrase more than 350 times – caused financial loss to the company.
BFI does not use the moniker ‘pink slime’, instead calling the product ‘lean finely textured beef’.
But now the case has drawn to a close. “ABC has reached an amicable resolution of its dispute with the makers of ‘lean finely textured beef’,” a statement released by the network said.
Details of the settlement have not been released.
The phrase ‘pink slime’ was coined by former U.S. government scientist Gerald Zirnstein to describe the ammonium hydroxide treated scrap meat, including bits of cartilage, that can go into US ground beef. The product was used by fast food chains and other eateries in foods like burgers.
The issue became highly publicized in 2012, when an email talking about the substance was leaked. A number of outlets reported on the topic, and British television chef Jamie Oliver spoke extensively about it. ABC released its prolific series of reports.
As a result fast food giant McDonald’s dropped hamburgers containing the product, and the USDA said school districts could opt out of feeding it to children.
Following the ABC broadcasts, BPI shut down three of its four processing plants, and let 700 out of 1,300 employees go, claiming its revenue dropped 80 percent to $130 million.
The company said: “If inaccurate information is being put out there by a news organization, particularly one with a powerful reach, it can cause tremendous damage.
“There are real consequences to that for real people.”
During the case BPI had claimed up to $1.9 billion in damages. Under South Dakota’s Agricultural Food Products Disparagement Act, this could have been tripled to $5.7 billion.
ABC counter-argued that BPI profits were already dropping before its reports were broadcast.
Because the case ended in settlement, it does not set a legal precedent, according to Sonja West, a professor of First Amendment law at the University of Georgia School of Law.
However, the result could have implications on how journalists report stories.
West said: “If that happens, it’s the public who suffers by missing out on valuable information about important matters. We don’t want a press that is always playing it overly safe with their reporting.”
‘Safe and nutritious’
Following the settlement BPI released a statement.
It said: “While this has not been an easy road to travel, it was necessary to begin rectifying the harm we suffered as a result of what we believed to be biased and baseless reporting in 2012.
“Through this process, we have again established what we all know to be true about Lean Finely Textured Beef: it is beef, and is safe, wholesome, and nutritious.”
Right to know
ABC released a statement to say it stood by its reporting.
It said: “Throughout this case, we have maintained that our reports accurately presented the facts and views of knowledgeable people about this product.
“Although we have concluded that continued litigation of this case is not in the Company’s interests, we remain committed to the vigorous pursuit of truth and the consumer’s right to know about the products they purchase.”
Journalist Jim Avila, the ABC reporter against whom the case was brought, added: “We’re not retracting anything. We’re not apologizing for anything.”