US network ABC has reached a settlement with a South Dakota meat producer that accused the network of defamation following its news reports about so-called pink slime in 2012.
The agreement ends what was expected to be an eight-week jury trial, which began on June 5. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed. Beef Products Inc had sought $1.9 billion in damages, but the figure could have grown to as much as $5.7 billion under a South Dakota food libel law that allows for triple damages against those found to have knowingly lied about a food product.
Beef Products says ABC News whipped up the controversy about the meat product to boost ratings, inflaming consumers’ fears and forcing plant closures.
“This was fake news,” Beef Products lawyer J. Erik Connolly told Judge Gering during arguments in January. “It’s perfectly safe. It’s perfectly nutritious. It was properly approved by the USDA. There was no news here. There was nothing to rush out and talk about. There was no news.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, the term “pink slime” was in wide use after a 2009 New York Times story on the product, but it exploded on social media after the ABC News broadcasts in 2011. ABC focused on the fact ground beef labels made no mention of LFTB, made from defatted beef trimmings in a process involving ammonium hydroxide.
In an interview with a meat industry spokesperson, multiple Emmy award-winning journalist, Jim Avila, was gunning for bear. “Why – if it is just another additive, a way to put leaner beef in the burgers at a cheaper price, if it is no problem, if it’s safe, all those things, why not just label it? Why not just put it on the package?”
South Dakota Judge Cheryle Gering said Avila was “rude, agitated and hostile” in his questioning of the Beef Products defender. Judge Gering, in rejecting ABC’s bid to have the case dismissed, said a jury could find the network was pursuing “a negative spin” on the story before conducting any research and that Avilla had an anti-meat-industry agenda.
“Looking at the evidence in a light most favorable to the plaintiffs, a jury could determine that there is clear and convincing evidence that ABC Broadcasting and Mr. Avila were reckless,” the judge said, and that “they engaged in purposeful avoidance of the truth.”
A public backlash led to a massive fall in sales for Beef Products, and the company closed three of its plants and laid off about 700 workers.
According to the New York Times, ABC News has not retracted or apologized for its report, which remains available on its website. Julie Townsend, an ABC spokeswoman, said in a statement that the sides had reached “an amicable resolution.”
“Throughout this case, we have maintained that our reports accurately presented the facts and views of knowledgeable people about this product,” the statement read. “Although we have concluded that continued litigation of this case is not in the company’s interests, we remain committed to the vigorous pursuit of truth and the consumer’s right to know about the products they purchase.”
Beef Products said in a statement that it was “extraordinarily pleased” to reach the settlement, which would give them “a strong foundation on which to grow the business.”
“While this has not been an easy road to travel, it was necessary to begin rectifying the harm we suffered as a result of what we believed to be biased and baseless reporting in 2012,” the statement said. “Through this process, we have again established what we all know to be true about lean finely textured beef: it is beef, and is safe, wholesome, and nutritious.”