‘Pink Slime’ Defamation Trial Underway In South Dakota

Image courtesy of Joe Gratz

Five years after Beef Products Inc. first filed a lawsuit against ABC News, blaming it for tying its name to the idea of “pink slime” — what the meat processor calls lean finely textured beef products — the defamation trial is underway in South Dakota.

A jury was selected and seated last week, and opening statements started on Monday, reports the Los Angeles Times. BPI is seeking $1.9 million in damages, but under South Dakota law, that figure could increase to up to $5.7 billion

In its complaint [PDF] BPI claims that ABC’s coverage of its product misled consumers into believing it is unsafe, and that subsequent plant closures led to hundreds of layoffs.

In January 2012, McDonald’s, discontinued the use of the lean finely textured beef in their products. Other companies like Safeway and Kroger followed in March that year.

Yesterday, attorneys for BPI told jurors that ABC’s series of news reports — what the company calls a “disinformation campaign” — about the product caused a 75% drop in business.

“They ignored the proper name,” said BPI attorney Dan Webb on Monday, reports The Hollywood Reporter, noting that ABC referenced the filler as “pink slime” 350 times during its coverage. “When you have a major news organization that is calling the product ‘slime,’ witnesses will say they can’t imagine anything worse. It connotes something disgusting, inedible.”

He showed photos of the product to the jury, and argued that lean finely textured beef “doesn’t physically look like slime.”

But ABC argues that it accurately presented views and information from “knowledgeable sources on a matter of keen public interest.” In court on Monday, the network’s lawyers took aim at BPI’s product and how it got approved, THR notes, with the courtroom become so heated with objections that a judge ordered a recess.

“If any of you have children, you know there are two sides to a story. This case is no different,” said ABC attorney Dane Butswinkas. “The secret ingredient in [BPI’s] product was secrecy.”

And while BPI’s Webb made sure to bring up “pink slime” often, notes THR, Butswinkas rarely mentioned the word — and when he did, it was to deflate its importance. He noted that the term “pink slime” had been used 3,870 times elsewhere in the media before the ABC report, and claimed it was actually BPI who created the Wikipedia page for the term.

“We believe in the principle that people deserve to know what’s in the food they eat and are confident that when all the facts are presented in court, ABC’s reporting will be fully vindicated,” ABC said in a statement.

Next, both sides will present witnesses and evidence. The trial is slated to continue through late July.