Don't Be Mean To Meat, Or We'll Sue!

In a story I have been watching for a few months, Beef Products Inc. — known as BPI — has sued ABC News for $1.2 billion its "pink slime" reporting earlier this year. BPI sued in South Dakota state court; I'm in the process of seeking the complaint.

The beef industry has previously been aggressive in suing people who criticize it, often with disastrous results, and is one of the industries that has used its political clout to persuade compliant legislatures to pass "food defamation laws" that make it easier to sue people who speak ill of their products. South Dakota is such a state; I suspect we'll see causes of action under that state's food defamation law.

I'll report on the complaint when I get it. Key issues to watch for: how much specificity does it use to identify allegedly defamatory statements? How many of those statements are opinions, as opposed to facts? How many of those statements are reports of what third parties say, as opposed to ABC's own conclusions?

This could wind up as a very interesting First Amendment battle — as well as an opportunity to question why we should let powerful industries buy their own don't-be-mean-to-me laws. But let's not prejudge — it might also be a good exposition of problems with the way the media reports on scientific or technical issues. Or it could be both. Stay tuned.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Dan Weber says

    The "pink slime" issue does seem blown way out of proportion, but I'm not sure suing is the right response. The fact that the public went coocoo with ABC's news report isn't necessarily ABC's fault.

  2. C. S. P. Schofield says

    I have to confess that my immediate reaction to the 'Pink Slime' fuss was pretty much "Great, a bunch of white upper-middle class people are going to have kittens about a safe method of using meat scraps, and the price of meat that poor people use is going to go up."

    I'm sure that there are questionable practices all through the food processing industry. I'm not persuaded that the salvage and sale of 'pink slime' is one of them.

    I'm also not persuaded that the lawsuit is going to be any better. But I am more than a little tired of food faddists who want, by hook or by crook, to make everybody in the world eat they way they eat.

  3. Josh C says

    "Journalist" is a somewhat privileged role (e.g. not having to disclose sources; yes, I know its not completely clear cut). Shouldn't they be held to a lower standard for defamation?

  4. says

    The lawsuit is unlikely to be pure thuggery. It isn't like ABC doesn't have the resources to defend itself, even in South Dakota. I will bet anyone a dollar (yeah, big spender, I know) that the beef people caught ABC in at least one untrue statement of fact.

  5. says

    I agree that ABCs reporting was ridiculously hysterical, but unless they lied, I'm not seeing the lawsuit.

    Really, I'm tired of these, "Eek! Look what's in your food!" stories. OK, wise guys. *You* try feeding seven billion people without some industrialization. If we made the food the way these guys want us to, half the people on the planet would starve to death.

  6. says

    If we made the food the way these guys want us to, half the people on the planet would starve to death.

    Well, yes. Isn't that the point?

    In any event, I find the idea of "food defamation" laws to be ridiculous, and while libel, slander, etc., is not protected speech, "Ooo, this is gross!" does not rise to that bar. Having not seen the original report, or personally vetted each and every statement as "fact", "opinion", "mixed", etc, I can't comment on specifics. If there are errors of fact (as opposed to mere omissions of facts), I'd assume any judgment be based on the prevalence of such errors over the course of the entire broadcast, the degree of inaccuracy (If I say own 2,635 RPG books, and in fact I own 2,636, I have "lied", but not to any meaningful degree) , and so on. While this is more "Goliath vs. Goliath" than "David vs. Goliath", the intent is probably more to establish precedent, to scare off smaller critics of the meat industry, and to make corporations, in general, compare the costs of such lawsuits against how much they make airing the episode.

    As for me, every time some goddamnhippie (that's one word) shows me something about the "horrors" of "factory food", I go out to McDonalds. At this point, I'm starting to think the hippies either work for McDonalds, or for my local hospital's cardiac ward…

  7. Grifter says

    " Beef Products Inc. — known as BPI — has sued ABC News for $1.2 billion its "pink slime" reporting earlier this year. "

    I think there's a " for its reporting…" missing?

  8. says

    My favorite meat industry story was the case of a "Specialty" Beef Supplier started testing _all_ it's meat for Mad Cow Disease, instead of the normal one-per-thousand or whatever. The meat industry in general objected because if people found out that the one place was doing it, then they'd all have to make all the beef safe. So they got a ruling that the Specialty place had to stop doing the testing.

    In sort making sure _their_ product was safe "disparaged" the people who didn't or some such.


  9. David Schwartz says

    Josh C: The idea that the government can give special concessions to journalists and therefore can demand special concessions back from them is one that I, and I suspect a lot of Americans, find repugnant.

  10. says

    As a journalist who wrote about the so-called "pink slime" issue for a non-partisan crowd, I can say that there was potential libel in the media frenzy over this fake issue.

    This was a way of gleaning meat from fatty tissue that otherwise would have been waste. There were ZERO health issues with the product and know-nothing fools like celebrity chef Jamie Oliver went on a shrill fearmongering spree. Even the image of "pink slime" that circulated was phony. It showed mechanically separated chicken, not the play-do fun factory beef product at stake.

    This drove up food costs, including in public facilities like school cafeterias, as they had to switch to more expensive meat and throw out a lot of good foot they had already purchased and could not get refunded.

    I don't see why ABC is being singled out, and the 10 digit sum sounds excessive, but there was plenty of misinformation spread with this case that hurt an industry unfairly.

  11. AlphaCentauri says

    I know someone who just got diagnosed with CJD, and I was actually looking up some of the history of the mad cow debacle in England. Apparently part of the reason the BSE-associated cases were so much younger than what is seen in the sporadic cases was that there was pressure on school food services to serve offal to children in school lunches because it was so cheap. Add to that the fact that the government didn't initially prohibit the sale of the very downer cows that initially showed up with symptoms, the fact that government officials continued to insist there was 100% certainty the disease couldn't jump species to humans (based on the bizarre logic that they thought it was a sheep disease that had jumped species to cows, but that the sheep species had been known for a long time and had never affected humans), the fact that the beef industry was allowed to suggest the responses the government would provide if questioned about beef safety, the fact that government officials called up government-employee physicians researching the problem to strongly suggest they stop making inflammatory statements, the fact that there was an explicit written decision to make the initial report about the disease a classified document to prevent a detrimental effect on beef exports … well, I'm not feeling the love for the beef industry today.

  12. Gavin says

    @Robert White:

    Holy crap, they actually got a law passed to prevent a specialty store from testing their meat (or publicizing it)?!

    Do you have a link to that story? If true it would be an incredible failure of the legal system. I mean, Hell, the tobacco industry needs to hire the meat industry's attorney for the weekend.

  13. Base of the Pillar says

    As you point out, the worst crime committed by Big Beef is a lawsuit which essentially unleashed Dr. Phil upon this country. How have we not countersued the dog that doesn't hunt?

  14. robbie says

    yes, pink slime is safe!
    drinking ammonia in small amounts its safe too, it says so right on the bottle.
    where safe is defined as "we didnt test it, but no one died yet, so its safe" and we lobbied the government not to test our theory because it would be bad for business.

  15. wgering says

    Where could one find a copy of these "food defamation laws?"

    I'm curious as to how exactly they work (IANAL, for the record). For instance, is it OK for me to say that buying pre-ground meat products carries some (small though it may be) risk of contracting a food-borne illness? Or does it only apply if I mention BPI (or whatever company) products specifically?

    The notion of anti-defamation laws for specific markets scares me though. If big corporations can lobby for (read: purchase) legislation that criminalizes criticizing their goods and/or services (as seems to me to be the case; please correct me if I am mistaken), then competition is effectively dead.