(Upates being made)
SALEM, Ohio — The makers of lean finely textured beef — Beef Products Inc. — are suing ABC News for a 30-day series of stories that labeled the product “pink slime” and allegedly cost the company 80 percent of its business and resulted in more than 700 employees being laid off.
BPI and its business partners filed the suit Sept. 13 against ABC News and three ABC News reporters “for knowingly and intentionally publishing false and disparaging statements regarding BPI and its product, lean finely textured beef.”
The lawsuit seeks $1.2 billion in compensatory and statutory damages, plus punitive damages.
In a news conference hours after the lawsuit was filed, BPI’s legal counsel Dan Webb took issue with 11 ABC broadcasts and 14 Internet stories. He called the network’s reporting on the issue a “disinformation campaign” and said there were roughly 200 “false and misleading defamatory statements.”
ABC News Senior Vice President Jeffrey W. Schneider released a brief statement saying “the lawsuit is without merit. We will contest it vigorously.”
Webb said the network inaccurately portrayed lean finely textured beef as something that isn’t safe and that isn’t even food.
“It is 100 percent beef product,” Webb said. ” It’s not a filler, it’s not a substitute — my client’s product is 100 percent beef.”
Following ABC’s coverage, BPI sales declined from approximately five million pounds of LFTB per week to less than two million pounds per week, according to the company. Three BPI facilities closed and more than 700 employees lost their jobs.
“There is no more derogatory or defamatory phrase you could apply to a food product than to tell the public that they’re consuming slime,” said Webb, who is chairman of the law firm Winston & Strawn LLP.
The suit was filed in circuit court in Union County, S.D.
There is some question over where the phrase “pink slime” originated, but Webb said even if it was introduced before ABC’s coverage, it should not have been republished.
He called it the “republishing” of defamation and said ABC News “was aware that they were running false statements.”
Specifically, Webb said the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration, as well as other top food safety organizations, all approved of lean finely textured beef and its safety as a food.
”All of them have reached conclusions about my client’s product that completely contradicted ABC and its broadcast,” Webb said.
Craig Letch, director of BPI’s food safety and quality assurance, said he traveled to the company’s plants as layoffs were announced, and was in disbelief.
“The resounding question was ‘why, why is this happening,’” he said. “This is not tied to a food safety outbreak. … This is tied to a misinformation campaign that was waged against our companies.”
The lawsuit also names former Government Accountability Project client and BPI Quality Assurance Manager Kit Foshee as a defendant.
Foshee has helped champion the phrase “pink slime” and in a statement released to media, he alleges that he was terminated for refusing to participate in the company’s misrepresentation of the product’s safety to USDA and to customers.
“I went on ABC because I thought it was the right thing to do, and that the public had a right to know,” he said in a statement.
A copy of the complaint and facts about lean finely textured beef are available at www.beefisbeef.com.