by Todd Neeley, DTN Staff Reporter
OMAHA (DTN) -- Beef Products Inc. is seeking $1.2 billion in damages in a defamation suit filed against ABC News, alleging the network's coverage of lean finely textured beef led to the unraveling of the company's business, lost markets, closed plants and lost jobs.
BPI attorney Dan Webb said in a news conference that the 263-page lawsuit filed Thursday in Union County Circuit Court in South Dakota was in response to 11 live broadcasts and 14 online reports in a 30-day stretch starting on March 7, 2012.
During that time, the lawsuit alleges, anchors and reporters made more than 200 "false and misleading" statements and "caused consumers to believe" the LFTB product was "not beef at all" and "unsafe for public consumption" although the company said it provided volumes of information about its product to ABC.
As a result of the broadcasts, the company said its sales fell by about 80%, it was forced to close three of four processing plants and lay off about 700 employees, and will have sustained about $400 million in lost sales.
Craig Letch, director of food safety and quality assurance for BPI, said it took some 30 years to build a business that he said is an American success story.
"In less than 30 days ABC was successful in tearing it down," he said.
"PINK SLIME" STATEMENTS
The network used the term "pink slime" some 130 times during the broadcasts, Webb said, despite information provided to ABC to prove LFTB was 100% beef.
"All of it is false," Webb said of the network's statements.
"ABC's constant repetition of it had a huge impact on the consuming public. It was not enough for ABC to defame our product, but during the broadcast they targeted our customers and interfered with our customers. They created a grassroots movement among consumers."
During the course of the broadcasts ABC aired what Webb said was a "blacklist" of those grocery store chains and other PBI customers who purchased the beef product. Then as companies announced they were no longer buying the product, he said, ABC would cross those customers off the list and laud their efforts.
ABC News has offered one public statement since the lawsuit was filed.
Jeffrey W. Schneider, senior vice president of ABC, offered a brief statement to the Associated Press saying, "The lawsuit is without merit. We will contest it vigorously."
Webb said ABC's reporting created four false implications: 1) That LFTB was unsafe; 2) That LFTB was not nutritious; 3) That LFTB was not beef or meat; and 4) That BPI engaged in improper conduct in seeking USDA approval to sell the product.
Webb said he hopes to discover who coined the term "pink slime," and to find a motive behind the stories.
Various news agencies have reported that a former USDA employee created the phrase, although Webb said his five-month investigation has found no evidence that anyone at USDA played a role.
When asked during a press conference whether vegan interests or animal rights groups could have sparked ABC's reporting, Webb said motivations are unclear but that, "ABC News was having ratings issues at the time."
According to an economic analysis conducted by Iowa State University economics professors Dermot Hayes and Daniel Otto, LFTB was as much as 850 million pounds of the annual beef supply in 2011.
Their report said the 300 million pounds of lean finely textured beef that would have been produced through the end of 2012 was worth $273 million, with another $300 million in lost sales "through economic multiplier effects."
The lawsuit outlines a number of the types of false statements the company alleges were made by ABC News.
Those included that LFTB was "pink slime;" that it was not beef or meat; that it was used as "filler" added to ground beef; that it was a "substitute" for beef; that selling ground beef that included LFTB was "economic fraud" or "food fraud;" that it is made from "waste," "scraps," "low grade" beef trimmings from "low quality" beef trimmings; and was "contaminated" with "excrement."
"Defendants' disinformation campaign was not the product of merely negligent reporting. It was based on knowing or reckless misstatements of facts. Defendants' statements were inconsistent with information that BPI and others gave to the ABC defendants before and during the disinformation campaign. Defendants' statements were contradicted by the findings of the USDA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, various food safety organizations, and experts in the beef industry."
The lawsuit argues that ABC had access to more than 60 letters, articles, press releases, reports and studies "showing that their statements about BPI and LFTB were false."
In addition, the lawsuit alleges that ABC "provided positive coverage" for stores that dropped "pink slime" and "negative coverage for the stores that did not do so."
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Posted with DTN Permission by Haylie Shipp