ELK POINT, S.D., June 5, 2017 – The defamation lawsuit brought by a South Dakota meat processor against ABC News began Monday. Beef Products Inc. is suing ABC News and reporter Jim Avila for $1.9 billion, claiming the show caused the company to lose money after news reports in 2012 referred to their product as “pink slime.”
Attorneys presented opening statements Monday in the Union County courthouse in Elk Point, South Dakota, to a 16-person jury.
BPI Attorney Dan Webb argued ABC News caused the meat processing company to lose business after referring to their product as “pink slime” over 350 times from March 7 to April 3.
Within two weeks after the initial news report, Webb claims demand for the product dropped 75 percent and the company went from producing 5 million pounds of Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) down to 2 million pounds per week. BPI also said it had to lay off 700 employees.
The company alleges ABC News knew and intentionally published false and disparaging statements regarding their company and its product.
“ABC called it filler, salvage, dog food ingredients, and said the product was exposed to fecal matter,” Webb stated. He also claims the company had to shut down three of its four plants because of the reports. “We are not claiming ABC coined the phrase ‘pink slime’ but that the use of the word took off after the report,” Webb said.
ABC News attorney Dane Butswinkas said that’s not true. “Pink Slime was used 3,817 times before we aired the report. BPI even created a Wikipedia page explaining what the product was,” he said. “They started losing business long before the ABC News report.” He also stated the angle of their stories was not about ‘food safety’ like prior reports, but about ‘labeling.’”
“ABC did not report facts that hadn’t been said before,” Butswinkas said. “The secret ingredient BPI left out of their claim that burst their bubble was secrecy.”
The defense claims three of BPI’s top customers – McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell –stopped buying the product three months before the reports aired.
ABC News also claims out of 725 different news segments, 2 percent covered the topic of pink slime. “The truth is, ABC’s reports were a small part of a much larger puzzle,” Butswinkas said.
One of the claims filed by BPI is a statutory claim under a South Dakota law called the Agriculture Food Products Disparagement Act. This statute protects food products from being belittled. The food products disparagement claim is alleging disparagement of the food product itself by referring to it as “pink slime.”
“We don’t have a lot of cases where these types of claims have been made,” said Kristine Tidgren, Ag lawyer with Iowa State University’s Center for Law and Taxation. “In South Dakota, BPI is going to have to prove ABC News, by its reports, implied this product was not safe to eat and left the public believing it.”
Tidgren said this is very hard to prove because BPI must show ABC News or the reporter knew the claims were false. The disparagement act does have weight though, as it can result in three times actual damages – which could come to nearly $6 billion – if it’s proven that whoever made the statements was intending to harm BPI.
And this case is in front of a jury so a lot could happen. The jury is made up of 16 jurors, 11 women and five men. All are white except for a Hispanic woman and they range in age from the mid-40s to the 70s.
ABC News claims they did not lie. “We believe in the principle that people deserve to know what’s in the food they eat and are confident that when all the facts are presented in court, our reporting will be fully vindicated.”
The trial is expected to last until late July. Butswinkas said Avila plans to attend every hearing.
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