At this point, almost everyone understands what you mean when you say “pink slime” – the processed meat product that can be used as filler in ground beef. But before 2012 the phrase wasn’t a part of the American lexicon, let alone associated with meat. That year, an ABC News report presented the product, known in the industry as “lean finely textured beef” or LFTB, under its catchy new acronym, and subsequently created a media outcry that the gelatinous-looking beef product isn’t something we necessarily want to be eating.
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Whether LFTB is a perfectly sensible use for excess meat trimmings or the ultimate embodiment of the over-processing of our food is a matter of personal opinion, but here is a fact: The “pink slime” phenomenon was bad news for the LFTB business. According to NPR, Beef Products, Inc – the South Dakota-based business featured in ABC News’ report – says almost immediately, fast food companies stopped working with the company and petitions were launched to cut “pink slime” from school lunches. The company had to close three plants and lay off 700 workers. As a result, that same year, Beef Products filed a $1.9 billion suit against ABC News for defamation, essentially claiming that the report destroyed its business due to, as company CEO Eldon Roth called it at the time, “blatantly false and disparaging statements” that “knowingly misled consumers into believing that LFTB was not beef and not safe for public consumption, which is completely false.”
This week, five years later, jury selection for that suit has finally started. NPR’s All Things Considered spoke with Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, who said that in our current era of “fake news” claims, the “pink slime” case could have broader implications. “I do think it's a bellwether in the sense that it raises two very critical issues,” said Kirtley. “One is that BPI claims that ABC News was basically on a disinformation campaign, which is another way of saying fake news. The other goes at the heart of what the media are supposed to be doing, which is informing the public about things that might be matters of interest to them but which corporate America might not be interested in sharing with them. And I think that was ABC's justification for doing this story – simply to let people know that this substance was in their ground beef.”
Meanwhile, Beef Products Inc may have an uphill battle in proving its case, likely having not only “to prove that ABC News said the beef product was unsafe to consume,” according to Kirtley, but also possibly “that ABC News acted with what is called actual malice.” Regardless, though “pink slime” may be less common in our food, after half a decade, the lawsuit over “pink slime” will probably be around for a bit longer.