Opinion: Elk Point… get ready for (pink) slime

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Screenshot taken on Sept. 19, 2016

Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

The case originally was filed as Freezing Machines Inc., Beef Products Inc. and BPI Technology Inc. vs. Kit Foshee, American Broadcasting Companies Inc., ABC News Inc., Diane Sawyer, Jim Avila, David Kerley, Gerald Zirnstein and Carl Custer. Not ringing any bells? Need a hint? It’s the “pink slime” case. Oh THAT case. Ding, ding, ding, ding!

Next June, in the tiny town of Elk Point, South Dakota, (population 1,963) ABC anchor Diane Sawyer, ABC executives and a host of high power lawyers will try to convince a jury of 12 before Trial Judge Cheryle Gering that there was no defamation in calling BPI’s lean, finely textured beef “pink slime” in network newscasts back in March and April of 2012.

BPI’s lean, finely textured beef is made from beef trimmings, which are heated, then centrifuged, and finally injected with ammonia gas to kill bacteria.

The “pink slime” report became a media sensation. From water-cooler scuttlebutt to late night punch-lines, “pink slime” went viral. But the report hurt BPI’s bottom line big time. The Dakota Dunes-based company had to shutter three of its four plants. It laid off some 700 employees.

Restaurants, supermarkets and school cafeterias participating in the national school lunch program canceled their orders. BPI puts its sales losses at more than $400 million. The company is seeking $1.2 billion in damages.

ABC both tried to have the case dismissed and have it moved to a different venue, the U.S. District Court in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

ABC was unsuccessful on both counts and is now left to defend itself on BPI’s home turf. BPI’s offices are just down the road from the Union County Circuit Court, which officials concede is too small to accommodate what certainly will be a media circus. Town folk are currently investigating whether the court house can be remolded to accommodate the descending horde or if there are nearby alternate digs.

No matter the venue, BPI will have its hands full proving defamation. A couple of other high profile cases in recent years, Texas Cattlemen v Howard Lyman and Oprah Winfrey and Auvil v. CBS 60 Minutes, have established case law when it comes to defamation when the plaintiff is a public figure.

This is almost certainly the case for BPI. The meat company will need to prove ABC knowingly published false information or acted in reckless disregard to its falsity.

BPI tried to do just that in its rebuttal to ABC’s motion to dismiss.

Judge Gering found the arguments at least pervasive enough to proceed with a trial. Whether BPI can convince 12 jurors of the same—we’ll find out next year. Knowing something about how the media works and thinks, I believe Sawyer and her journalistic co-hearts recycled New York Times coverage of the same subject from 2009.

And then ABC made a calculated decision to play up the icky-factor of “pink slime,” knowing it would get public attention.

But were the reports false? Is pink-slime a truthful moniker for lean finely textured beef? (Is a rose by any other name still a rose?)

I think ABC went overboard on its coverage but is likely to prevail, unless home cooking gives BPI the edge in tiny Elk Point, where most folk were directly financially impacted or know someone who was by the “pink slime” reports.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For the past 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch

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