NORTH SIOUX CITY, S.D. - Beef Products Inc. sued ABC News, Inc. for defamation Thursday over its coverage of a meat product that critics dub "pink slime," claiming the network damaged the company by misleading consumers into believing it is unhealthy and unsafe.
The Dakota Dunes, S.D.-based meat processor is seeking $1.2 billion in damages for roughly 200 "false and misleading and defamatory" statements about the product officially known as lean, finely textured beef, said Dan Webb, BPI's Chicago-based attorney.
The lawsuit filed in a South Dakota state court also names several individuals as defendants, including ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer and the Department of Agriculture microbiologist who coined the term "pink slime."
In this March 29 photo, the beef product known as lean finely textured beef, or 'pink slime,' is frozen on a large drum as part of its manufacturing process at the Beef Products Inc.'s plant in South Sioux City, Neb. Beef Products Inc. filed a defamation lawsuit against ABC News Thursday, for its coverage of the meat product that critics have dubbed “pink slime,” alleging that the network misled consumers to believe the product is unhealthy and unsafe.
The company's reporting "caused consumers to believe that our lean beef is not beef at all - that it's an unhealthy pink slime, unsafe for public consumption, and that somehow it got hidden in the meat," Webb said before the company's official announcement.
ABC News, owned by The Walt Disney Co., denied BPI's claims.
"The lawsuit is without merit," Jeffrey W. Schneider, the news station's senior vice president, said in a brief statement Thursday. "We will contest it vigorously."
The 257-page lawsuit names American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., ABC News, Inc., Sawyer and ABC correspondents Jim Avila and David Kerley as defendants. It also names Gerald Zirnstein, the USDA microbiologist who named the product "pink slime," Carl Custer, a former federal food scientist, and Kit Foshee, a former BPI quality assurance manager who was interviewed by ABC.
Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, declined to comment and attempts to reach Foshee were unsuccessful. A spokesman for the Food Integrity Campaign, a whistleblower advocacy group that has worked with Foshee, said Thursday that he would attempt to contact Foshee. Spokesman Dylan Blaylock also said the Washington-based group may release a statement.
When reached for comment, Zirnstein said that he had not yet been served with the lawsuit.
"I'm just a scientist giving my opinion. I'm not going to deal with this nonsense," he said, referring questions to his attorney.
Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who said he's representing Zirnstein and Custer, said his clients were considering a counter-claim against BPI.
"Our view is that the lawsuit against them, especially as public employees doing their job for food inspection, is completely bogus, without merit and frivolous," Marler said.
Although several news organizations used the term "pink slime," Webb said ABC was being sued for attacking the company "night after night." The "defendants engaged in a monthlong vicious, concerted disinformation campaign against BPI," the lawsuit claims, citing 11 TV and 14 online reports from March 7 to April 3.
Craig Letch, BPI's director of food-quality assurance, said the company lost 80 percent of its business in 28 days. BPI has declined to discuss how much it lost in sales, but acknowledged it took a "substantial" hit. Some of the customers have returned, Letch said, but not enough to allow BPI to rehire former employees.