Of all the media outlets that have taken shots at Beef Products and its “lean, finely textured beef,” the South Dakota-based company apparently feels slimed by only one: ABC and its ABC News division.
The largest U.S. producer of “pink slime” — once widely found in fast-food burgers, supermarkets and the federal school lunch program — filed a defamation lawsuit Thursday against the network, claiming it went on a campaign that cost Beef Products $400 million. Anchor Diane Sawyer and reporters Jim Avila and David Kerley are also named as defendants.
“ABC ran for about 30 days a vicious disinformation campaign that consists of almost 200 false and misleading defamatory statements,” said Dan Webb, a trial lawyer and chairman of Winston & Strawn, which is representing Beef Products.
The 250-page-plus complaint asks for a total of $1.2 billion because South Dakota’s Agricultural Food Products Disparagement Act allows a plaintiff to triple the amount of damages that result from the defendant’s actions.
“The lawsuit is without merit,” Jeffrey W. Schneider, a senior vice president of ABC News, said in a statement. “We will contest it vigorously.” ABC declined to comment further on the lawsuit.
But the network noted that many other media outlets have reported on lean, finely textured beef, from USA Today to an online petition to MSNBC. ABC also singled out a 2009 New York Times investigation that published the first-known reference to “pink slime,” coined by a former U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist, Gerald Zirnstein, in 2002. (Zirnstein, incidentally, served as a “whistleblower” in ABC News’s own investigation and is named in the suit.)
When asked why Beef Products was singling out ABC News, and not suing the other media outlets, Webb indicated it was a matter of volume and tenacity. The lawyer said that starting on March 7, ABC aired 11 broadcasts, published 14 online reports and issued social-media statements that, collectively, contained those alleged 200 false statements.
“What happened with ABC News is that they started this sustained, concerted, long-duration attack where, night after night, they emblazoned on the minds of consumers that we’re selling a slime product that is non-nutritious and is unsafe,” Webb said.