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'Pink slime' case moves forward

The $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit filed by Beef Products, Inc. (BPI) against ABC News may face an uphill battle.

BPI, the maker of lean, finely-textured beef is suing ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer and other ABC correspondents, as well as the Dept. of Agriculture microbiologist who originated the term “pink slime.”

“It’s not an easy case to make,” says Neil Hamilton, Drake University professor and director of the Agricultural Law Center, Des Moines, Iowa. “I can see how Beef Products, Inc. and its employees feel unfairly affected, but that’s a different issue than whether ABC News and others named in the suit defamed the product and should be held accountable.”

The suit claims media attention misled consumers, creating the impression that lean, finely-textured beef was unsafe and unhealthy. Beef Products, Inc. lost 80% of its business within 28 days. Sales of lean, finely-textured beef have fallen from five million pounds per week to less than two million pounds per week. The Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, company was forced to close three of its four plants and cut about 700 jobs.

The lawsuit was filed in South Dakota, one of 13 states with a food product disparagement law that imposes penalties on anyone who comments about perishable food products in a manner considered Inconsistent with “reasonable or reliable scientific inquiry.” Other states include Louisiana, Idaho, Mississippi, Georgia, Colorado, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio, and North Dakota.

“There’s little history of these laws being successfully used in the courts to recover damages,” Hamilton says

`ABC News argues that the lawsuit has no merit. In order to prove defamation, Hamilton says, the jury has to be convinced that ABC News knew that their stories were false. “I expect to see a lot of motions filed, lots of discovery,” Hamilton says. “It will be a year or longer before it comes to trial. It could drag on for years.”

Lean, finely-textured beef is made of trimmings. It undergoes a process to remove fat and is treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria. The USDA says the product, which has been used since 2004, is safe to eat.

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