Beef Products Inc. announced Thursday that the company has filed a $1.2 billion lawsuit against ABC News, three reporters (Diane Sawyer, Jim Avila and David Kerley) and others, claiming damages as a result of their reports on BPI's lean finely textured beef product (LFTB) more colloquially known as "pink slime."
"There has to be some consequences for news organizations to be more truthful," stated Beef Products Inc. founder Eldon Roth in a video extolling the virtues of the product and outlining the company's case against the news outlet. "They hurt real people, and a lot of people."
ABC News was just one of many media outlets reporting on the controversial product earlier this year, but BPI has focused in on the media giant for what it calls a "concerted disinformation campaign" against LFTB.
Dan Webb, the company's lawyer, wrote in a public statement, "Through nearly 200 false, misleading and defamatory statements, repeated continuously during a month-long disinformation campaign, ABC and other individuals knowingly misled consumers into believing that LFTB was not beef and not safe for public consumption, which is completely false."
The company will be asking a jury to award BPI more than $1 billion in compensatory and statutory damages, plus punitive damages for "defamation, product and food disparagement, and tortious interference with business relationships."
Webb stated today in a phone call with reporters that, "The evidence is overwhelming that our product is 100% beef."
BPI makes the product by grinding together beef scraps and connective tissue. The company then uses a mixture of ammonia and water (ammonium hydroxide) to prevent the risk for E. coli or salmonella contamination.
While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) both consider ammonium hydroxide as GRAS (an acronym for "generally recognized as safe"), McDonald's has since announced that it discontinued the use of, what the corporation calls, select beef trimmings (SLBT). The fast food chain came under fire after the episode for using the filler in its hamburger patties.
"For a number of years prior to 2011, to assist with supply, McDonald's USA used some lean beef trimmings treated with ammonia in our burgers. We were among other food retailers who used this safe product," the fast food chain released in a statement.
"At the beginning of last year, we made a decision to stop using this ingredient. It has been out of the McDonald's USA supply chain since last August."
Taco Bell and Burger King have reportedly also discontinued use of BPI's product. Safeway, SUPERVALU and Food Lion supermarkets also discontinued the product. In March, a blogger named Bettina Seigel started a Change.org petition asking USDA to stop the use of LFTB in ground beef destined for school food. As a result, the United States Department of Agriculture announced that starting in the fall of 2012 it would offer school districts a choice of beef either with LFTB or without the filler.
Sales declined from approximately five million pounds of LFTB per week to less than two million pounds per week, three BPI facilities closed and more than 700 employees lost their jobs, according to a company statement.
Food safety attorney Bill Marler, who has been asked to represent two former FSIS public employees named in the suit, explained in an e-mail, "I just do not get the liability. I just do not see it. The lawsuit is without merit."
Marler explained his understanding of the timeline, saying "The words 'pink slime' came from an internal email between inspectors at FSIS commenting on the product. Another inspector called it 'Soylent Pink' -- which I thought was even better. These documents came out during litigation I had with Cargill in 2009, which the New York Times used in part to get a Pulitzer."
"Then almost three years later The Daily writes a story that some chains had quietly stopped using LFTB, then a mom blogger puts up a petition asking that it be taken out of the school lunch program and ABC picks it up from there," Marler continued.
Jeffrey Schneider, Senior Vice President of ABC News said in a statement, "The lawsuit is without merit...We will contest it vigorously."