Media and Communications Law

'Pink Slime' Beef Producers Sue ABC, Diane Sawyer, USDA Microbiologist and Others, Seek $1.2B

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A group of companies that produce lean finely textured beef–called “pink slime” by some critics–has filed a defamation suit over news coverage that included the nickname and, plaintiff Beef Products Inc. alleges, falsely portrayed the meat as unhealthy.

Winston & Strawn’s chairman, Dan Webb, represents BPI concerning the 257-page lawsuit, which was filed Thursday in state court in South Dakota, according to the Associated Press.

He said reports by defendant ABC News Inc. created the false impression “that it’s some type of chemical product, that it’s not beef … that it’s some kind of repulsive, horrible, vile substance that got put into ground beef and hidden from consumers.” As a result of what the suit described as a “monthlong, vicious concerted disinformation campaign” by multiple defendants, Webb said BPI has suffered a “catastrophic” loss of business that forced the company to lay off 650 workers and close three of its four production facilities.

A senior vice president of ABC News, which is owned by Walt Disney Co., said in a brief written statement Thursday that the suit is “without merit” and will be vigorously contested.

Additional defendants include ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, other ABC correspondents, at least one individual who appeared on camera for news reports and Gerald Zirnstein, a U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist who reportedly is credited with coining the term “pink slime” for lean finely textured beef.

The Sioux City Journal reports that lean finely textured beef is made by heating the fatty trimmings that remain after cattle carcasses are cut into roasts or steaks. A centrifuge is then used to separate the bits of lean mean the scraps contain.

A BPI website, Beef Is Beef, further discusses the “pink slime” issue from the company’s perspective and attaches a copy of the lawsuit.

In addition to defamation, the Union County suit asserts claims for alleged common-law product disparagement, violation of the South Dakota Agricultural Food Products Disparagement Act and tortious interference with prospective business relationships.

It seeks over $400 million in claimed actual and consequential damages, treble damages, punitive damages and attorney’s fees and costs.

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