Defamation Suit Over Getting “Slimed”

Beef Products Inc. (BPI) was featured in ABC News reports a number of times this spring.  As you might guess from the title of this article, the news reports were not favorable.   The reports concerned possible health and nutrition issues with BPI’s “lean finely textured beef.”  ABC News even went so far as to refer to it as “pink slime.”  In response, BPI has filed a defamation lawsuit against ABC News, Inc., among others, seeking $1.2 billion in damages over the allegedly false and malicious coverage.

BPI’s “lean finely textured beef” is produced in a process by which bits of beef are heated and treated with a small amount of ammonia to kill bacteria and then compressed together for use in ground beef products.  Yummy!  Apparently, this practice meets federal food safety standards, and the product can properly be referred to as beef.   It does not appear that the USDA has ever declared the product to be unsafe.  Of course, that really only means that the product probably won’t make you sick.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is nutritious.

According to the lawsuit, ABC News ran 11 television segments and 14 online news stories in March and early April of 2012 as part of a “month-long vicious, concerted disinformation campaign against BPI.”   BPI’s attorney claims that the reporting was designed to mislead consumers to believe that BPI’s “lean finely textured beef” was unhealthy and unsafe.  BPI has allegedly had to close three of its four plants and lay off 700 workers.  However, ABC was certainly not the first entity to refer to BPI’s finely textured beef as “pink slime.”  A Department of Agriculture microbiologist (also named in the suit) apparently coined that term a few years ago.

Unfortunately for BPI, defamation claims are notoriously hard to prove.   Not only will BPI have to prove that the information was false, but it must also prove that the ABC News knew that information was false and chose to ran it anyway.  Proving ordinary negligence by a news outlet just won’t cut.  Luckily for the media, they can be negligent until the cows come home (pun intended) with little or no repercussions.  In fairness to ABC News, I took a look at several of the stories archived on the ABC News website and nothing in them appeared to give BPI much of case (see e.g., story number 1).

Regardless of the merits of this particular lawsuit, it does go to show the power of the media.  It makes you wonder whether the law should allow a news outlet to be held accountable if it negligently runs a series of false stories that essentially put a company out of business and 700 employees out of work.  Discuss among yourselves.