The ‘pink slime’ saga continues


Beef Products Inc. shows a sample of their lean, finely-textured beef. A judge is scheduled to hear oral arguments on Dec. 17, 2013, in a motion to dismiss a defamation lawsuit over ABC News’s coverage of a meat product that critics dub “pink slime.” (AP Photo/Beef Products, Inc., File)

Is “pink slime” a fair description of what the beef industry calls “lean finely textured beef?”

The South Dakota Supreme Court on Thursday cleared the way for courts to consider that question — one many consumers decided for themselves, informed in part by ABC’s coverage of the controversial meat product in 2012.

The court denied ABC’s request to dismiss allegations that the network broadcast false statements that harmed the reputation of a beef company that supplied McDonald’s and other major fast food chains, several of which stopped using the product due to public pressure.

In 2012, ABC did a series of reports about the unappealing mixture of chemically treated cartilage and scrap meat known as “pink slime,” a term coined by a former U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist.

The New York Times questioned the safety of pink slime in 2009. British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, decried the use of pink slime as a filler in ground beef in an April 2011 episode of his popular TV show, “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.”

ABC’s 2012 investigation brought widespread attention to the subject. They reported that “70 percent of the ground beef on store shelves contains meat trimmings added as a filler. The scraps, once used only in dog food and cooking oil, are specially treated with ammonia to make them safe to eat,” prompting concerns among consumers. The network also published a nightly “blacklist” of stores selling pink slime.

A sign at the Butcher Shop is seen, Tuesday, March 27, 2012 in Northwood, N.H. telling customers their ground beef contains none of the lean finely textured beef, also known as "Pink Slime." (AP Photo/Jim Cole) A sign at a butcher shop in Northwood, N.H, in 2012. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

ABC’s investigation and other media reports fueled the “Stop Pink Slime” movement of food activists and consumers that successfully pressured major fast food chains to stop selling the product even though the USDA said it was safe.

Pink slime is the signature product of Beef Products Inc., the company that sued ABC, anchor Diane Sawyer and two of the network’s other correspondents for defamation to the tune of $1.2 billion.

Beef Products Inc. said ABC’s coverage of the pink slime controversy in March and April 2012 led to the closing of three of its facilities and the firing of about 700 workers.

Thursday’s decision affirms a decision by a lower court in March to let the case proceed. In that decision, Judge Cheryle Gering of the Union County Circuit Court found that the “entirety of the broadcasts can be reasonably interpreted as insinuating that plaintiffs are improperly selling a product that is not nutritious and/or not safe for the public’s consumption.”

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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