ABC news reporters Diane Sawyer and Jim Avila and American Broadcasting Companies Inc. remain as defendants in $1.2 billion lawsuit brought by Beef Products Inc. in Dakota Dunes, SD. However, the beef company that pioneered the product dubbed “pink slime” has agreed to drop its claims against ABC News Inc. and two former USDA scientists.
In a joint stipulation signed Friday by attorneys for the defendants and BPI, all parties agreed that the network’s news division and former USDA microbiologists Carl Custer and Gerald Zirnstein would be dismissed “with prejudice” as defendants in lawsuit. It means they cannot be sued again in the action.
Also dismissed from the action are ABC News reporter David Kerley and Kit Foshee, a former BPI quality control manager turned whistleblower.
The beef company — founded and still headed by Eldon Roth, the man who developed the process to separate the lean meat from trimmings which then would be exposed to a small puff of ammonium hydroxide as a food safety step — will continue with its civil action, which is scheduled for trial in Union County, SD next June.
With triple damages in play, BPI is seeking as much as $1.2 billion. The beef company claims a 2012 series of news reports on the ABC network included more than 200 false and disparaging statements about lean finely textured beef (LFTB).
“As result of the disinformation campaign, BPI sales declined from approximately 5 million pounds of LFTB per week to less than 2 million pounds per week, three BPI facilities have closed and more than 700 employees lost their jobs,” the beef company said in a news release in 2012.
A key problem with the television news coverage was the use of the phrase “pink slime” to describe BPI’s processed beef product.
The phrase came to light first in December of 2009 when Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Michael Moss of the New York Times used it in a news story. Moss didn’t coin the phrase, however.
“USDA microbiologist, Gerald Zirnstein, called the processed beef ‘pink slime’ in a 2002 e-mail message to colleagues and said, ‘I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling,’ ” Moss wrote in the Times.
While the 2009 beef series by Moss caught the attention of the Pulitzer Prize judges, the “pink slime” phrase didn’t really hit the mainstream until March 2012 when reports from ABC News correspondent Avila hit the small screen on “ABC World News with Diane Sawyer.”
Avila reported that 70 percent of U.S. supermarket ground beef at the time contained “pink slime” while legally carrying labels that said “100% ground beef.”
A tentative date of June 2017 has been set for the start of the trial in the Union county Courthouse in Elk Point, SD.
The jury trial is scheduled for Union County Circuit Court before Judge Cheryle Gering.
Union County is on the threshold of building a third courtroom to accommodate the high-profile case. A community room in the basement of the courthouse is to be turned into a third courtroom at a cost of about $100,000.