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MIXED IN: It was common practice before the 2012 ABC News segment to have lean finely textured beef mixed in with ground beef.

Multibillion-dollar lawsuit over pink slime begins

BPI is suing ABC News over 2012 coverage of lean finely textured beef.

Pink slime is back in the headlines. It’s a term that’s quick to register the “ick” factor. After all, who likes slime, no matter the color.

Pink slime is called lean finely textured beef (LFTB) by the beef industry. It’s defined by Wikipedia as “a meat-based product used as a food additive to ground beef and beef-based processed meats, as a filler, or to reduce the overall fat content of ground beef. In the production process, heat and centrifuges remove fat from the meat in beef trimmings. The resulting product is exposed to ammonia gas or citric acid to kill bacteria.”

Back in 2012, an ABC News report claimed that some 70% of ground beef sold in supermarkets had the so-called “pink slime” additive, and that Beef Products Inc. was complicit in mislabeling or not labeling when LFTB was included in beef sold to consumers in grocery stores.

I’m not against ABC reporting on the product being incorporated into ground beef. I think consumers should have the right to know — that is one of the core functions of media. But did the pink slime label go too far? Did the label alone, which was originally sourced to a USDA scientist, create a defamation campaign?

BPI says public exposure to the practice, which is USDA-approved, with the “pink slime” moniker caused grocery stores to abandon the product. BPI says it had to close three plants and lay off more than 700 workers.

It took five years to bring the suit to trial, but the lawyers for BPI and the Disney-owned media giant began sparring June 5 in the sleepy town of Elk Point, S.D. BPI is suing for $1.9 billion in damages, and it could go to $5.7 billion under the state’s Food Product Disparagement Act. BPI’s lawyers not only have to prove what ABC published was false, but also that it was done with actual malice.

History with food and lawsuits is not in BPI’s favor. Apple growers sued CBS News over its 1989 “60 Minutes” segment on the chemical use of Alar, claiming it was potentially cancerous. The $250 million suit was tossed after a judge ruled it was not possible to prove what CBS claimed was false.

And in 1998 after Oprah expressed her fears about mad cow disease on her program, Texas cattle producers brought a $12 million disparagement lawsuit. She prevailed under her right to free speech.

ABC described LFTB as, “Beef trimmings that were once only used in dog food and cooking food, but now [are] sprayed with ammonia to make them safe to eat.”

As awful as that sounds, in reality, LFTB is beef; it just wasn’t able to be harvested before. Food-grade ammonium hydroxide gas doesn’t scare me. It’s commonly used in other food products, like baked goods, cheeses and chocolate, to kill bacteria. So, with an ever-enlarging world population that’s hungry for red-meat protein, is LFTB a bad thing?

Gosh, I just can’t get past “pink slime.” What do you think the jury is going to say?
Email jennifer.kiel@penton.com.

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