Editor’s note: This is the first part of a four-part series. Part 1 outlines Beef Products Inc.’s lawsuit against ABC News and media coverage of “pink slime.” Part 2 looks at the controversy through a public relations and agriculture communic
ations lens. Part 3 offers the perspective of ABC News and other media on the First Amendment implications of the suit. The final installment in part 4 will take a deeper look at agriculture disparagement laws and their questionable constitutionality.
Beef Products Inc., one of the major producers of Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB), filed a defamation suit against ABC News in South Dakota state court Sept. 13. The action stems from reports by ABC News in March about LFTB, the so-called “pink slime.”
The company is seeking $1.2 billion in damages based on negative and allegedly false reports by ABC News. The 257-page suit names ABC, Diane Sawyer and other ABC correspondents, according to the AP article. It also names Gerald Zirnstein, the USDA microbiologist who named the product “pink slime,” Carl Custer, a former federal food scientist, and Kit Foshee, a former BPI quality assurance manager who was interviewed by ABC.
Media have rallied around ABC News, writing about the challenges BPI will face trying to win this legal battle. In a Sept. 13 NPR report and a Sept. 14 AP article in the Washington Post, “experts” are cited as stating that it will be up to BPI to show that ABC’s statements are provably false.
South Dakota is one of 13 states with agriculture disparagement laws on the books. The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on their constitutionality.
Most of the state laws were enacted in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The first attempt was in the state of Washington, as a result of the CBS News program “60 Minutes” covering the pesticides used in apple growing. The laws are designed to protect agriculture and food industry businesses from “libelous” claims by media and the public. The reasoning is that agriculture and food products do not have the shelf life of other manufactured goods, and therefore companies cannot weather media storms. The laws provide recourse for a business if it can prove it has been the subject of malicious media coverage or consumer claims.
Agriculture websites and organizations have posted articles about the lawsuit as well. Some, including Agriview.com, posted an extended version of the AP story on Sept. 20. Others, such as Beef Magazine, have offered original content on the issue. Several governors from Midwest states have made public statements supporting the BPI lawsuit and the beef industry.
BPI has launched its own website: Beefisbeef.com. On this site are links to media articles supporting BPI’s stance that it was the victim of unfair reporting. There also are links to multiple studies that indicate LFTB is perfectly safe for consumption. The site also mentions the significant job loss for BPI workers as a result of decreasing sales in the wake of the ABC News reports.
A March 9 GJR article pointed out that the production, distribution and consumption of LFTB have been increasing in past years with little media coverage until recently. The article also provides information about the production of LFTB and some of the chain restaurants that have stopped buying the product.
In addition, the media reports have focused on BPI but left out LFTB producers such as Cargill Meat Solutions, which is one of the largest producers of pink slime in the United States and around the world. While current media attention logically focuses on BPI and the defamation suit, Cargill continues to escape scrutiny with media reports mentioning only the one company.
Part 2 of this series will look at this issue from the viewpoint of agriculture companies and producers. The techniques used by public relations and agriculture communication professionals will be further explored.
What do you think of media coverage of LFTB production and the BPI lawsuit? Send Gateway Journalism Review your thoughts by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.