Beef Products Inc. sued ABC News for defamation Thursday over its coverage of a meat product that critics dub "pink slime," claiming the network damaged the company by misleading consumers into believing it is unhealthy and unsafe.
The Dakota Dunes, S.D.-based meat processor is seeking $1.2 billion in damages for roughly 200 "false and misleading and defamatory" statements about the product officially known as lean, finely textured beef, said Dan Webb, BPI's Chicago-based attorney.
The lawsuit filed in a South Dakota state court also names several individuals as defendants, including ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer and the Department of Agriculture microbiologist who coined the term pink slime.
ABC's reporting "caused consumers to believe that our lean beef is not beef at all -- that it's an unhealthy pink slime, unsafe for public consumption, and that somehow it got hidden in the meat," Webb said.
ABC News, owned by The Walt Disney Co., denied BPI's claims. "The lawsuit is without merit," Jeffrey W. Schneider, the news station's senior vice president, said in a statement . "We will contest it vigorously."
Although several news organizations used the term pink slime, Webb said ABC was being sued for attacking the company "night after night."
Craig Letch, BPI's director of food-quality assurance, said the company lost 80 percent of its business in 28 days. It closed three of its four plants and laid off 700 workers.
BPI will have to prove ABC intended to cause harm for the lawsuit to succeed, said Patrick Garry, a media law expert at the University of South Dakota School of Law.
"The media . . . don't usually print something they know to be false," he said. "It may be negligent, but usually there's a malice requirement as well."
Critics worry about how the meat is processed. Bits of beef are heated and treated with a small amount of ammonia to kill bacteria, a practice that has been used for decades and meets federal food safety standards. Webb said that ABC ignored that information, instead giving the impression "that it's some type of chemical product . . . some kind of repulsive, horrible, vile substance that got put into ground beef and hidden from consumers."