Journalists Subpoenaed In Defamation Suit Against ABC

Several journalists at Food Safety News and The New York Times were subpoenaed in the the latest development in the legal fight between a beef producer and ABC News, according to Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). Beef Products Inc. (BPI), which filed the $1.2 billion lawsuit, claimed the attacks had cost more than $400 million and destroyed more than 700 jobs.

BPI, a South Dakota-based company, sued ABC News over alleged “disinformation” against the beef industry. The company said ABC’s repeated use of the slur “pink slime” in reports about its lean finely textured beef which had been USDA-approved cost BPI jobs and millions of dollars. According to CJR, the lawsuit moved forward on July 23 when journalists’ including the Times’ Michael Moss received subpoenas for their communications with ABC on the subject.

ABC labeled finely textured beef as “pink slime” 52 times in just two weeks during 2012, and Reuters wrote in 2013 that ABC had used the term 137 times in only four weeks that year. BPI responded by suing ABC for “a month-long vicious, concerted disinformation campaign.”

ABC’s attacks against the product came despite assurances that the beef was safe. In fact the Department of Agriculture (USDA) publicly affirmed in March 2012 that lean finely textured beef was safe “for all consumers” and urged “customers to consult science based information on the safety and quality of this product.”

In October 2013, a South Dakota state court rejected ABC’s calls to dismiss the case.

The “pink slime” attacks were part of a wider media crusade against meat. Jim Avila, one of the ABC journalists specifically mentioned in BPI’s lawsuit had a long history of attacking meat: hyping Mad Cow Disease and criticizing USDA chicken regulations. Avila also pushed low-meat diets and “Meatless Mondays” in a Sept. 3, 2012 “Nightline” appearance.

Anti-meat attacks have had a major impact on the beef industry, and BPI in particular. In 2012, the campaign threatened 600 jobs BPI and suspended operations at three of their plants. The media campaign prompted Safeway, SUPERVALU and Food Lion to stop buying lean finely textured beef

One of the media’s major objections to lean finely textured beef was the use of tiny amounts of ammonium hydroxide to kill E. coli bacteria, but only a couple stories mentioned its use was to kill that dangerous bacteria.