By Scott Kennedy
The U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota is currently considering a motion by ABC News to dismiss a defamation suit brought against it by Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), the makers of “lean finely textured beef (LFTB).” Last March ABC News reported on the beef product, which its critics call “pink slime,” sparking widespread consumer outrage. In response, BPI recently filed suit against ABC under South Dakota’s defamation law and another state law permitting businesses to recover from anyone who knowingly disseminates false information about food safety.
LFTB is a product made from beef trimmings which are processed into a smooth substance and treated with ammonia for safety. ABC’s report described the nature of the product, of which many consumers had been unaware, and warned that 70 percent of supermarket ground beef contains the product. The story was widely re-circulated and discussed across social media, and BPI says that it had to suspend operations at several of its plants after the decrease in demand that resulted.
BPI filed suit in South Dakota state court in September seeking $400 million in compensatory damages, which could potentially be tripled under a South Dakota law pertaining to the disparagement of agricultural products. The complaint alleges that ABC’s reporting included false and defamatory statements that misled consumers to believe LFTB is unsafe. ABC recently removed the suit to federal court, where it now seeks to dismiss the action under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). In a supporting memorandum it argues, among other things, that none of its statements described LFTB as unsafe, that BPI’s lawsuit threatens to impede free speech, and that while “pink slime” may be an unflatteringly colorful description, it conveys no false information about the product.
The survival of BPI’s lawsuit is of particular interest because it echoes another controversial episode at the intersection of the beef industry and defamation law. In 1996, and again in 1998, Oprah Winfrey was famously sued by a group of cattle ranchers alleging that her televised discussions of mad cow disease libelously misled consumers about the safety of the U.S. beef supply. After six years of legal battles and escalating costs Ms. Winfrey prevailed, but ABC news no doubt hopes to prevent a protracted fight. Should the action eventually go to trial BPI will face a steep challenge, however: their claims require proof not only that ABC’s reporting misled consumers to the detriment of the industry, but also that the news team knew or suspected their statements to be false. ABC news denies any such knowledge. More information about the case can be found under the name Beef Products Inc et al v. American Broadcasting Cos et al, U.S. District Court, District of South Dakota, No. 12-4183.