(CN) - A South Dakota-based beef producer slammed ABC News and Diane Sawyer with a $1.2 billion lawsuit, claiming the network defamed its "lean, finely textured beef" product as "pink slime."
Beef Products Inc., BPI Technology Inc. and Freezing Machines Inc. sued ABC, ABC News, Diane Sawyer, and others, in Union County Court, in Elk Point, S.D.
The plaintiffs claim the defendants conducted "a month-long vicious, concerted disinformation campaign" about a beef additive the plaintiffs claim is safe, nutritious and has lowered the cost of beef sold for 20 years.
The plaintiffs say the process used to remove lean beef from beef trimmings produces up to 20 additional pounds of lean meat from each cow, reducing the number of animals that need to be slaughtered and lowering the fat content of ground beef.
As a result, the plaintiffs say, more than 5 billion lbs. of the beef additive have been sold, and no food-borne illness has been reported from it in the 20 years it has been sold.
They accuse ABC of running stories that misled viewers "into believing that LFTB [lean finely textured been] was not beef at all, but rather was an unhealthy 'pink slime' 'hidden' in ground beef as part of an 'economic fraud' masterminded by BPI." "Defendants' campaign against BPI and LFTB was unparalleled in terms of its duration, its scope of false statements, and the size of the audience it reached through the ABC broadcasts and online reports," the complaint states. "Between March 7 and April 3, 2012, ABC aired 11 broadcasts attacking BPI and LFTB. Defendants supplemented the broadcasts with 14 online reports and numerous social media postings. Over these 28 days, Defendants knowingly or recklessly made nearly 200 false, defamatory, and disparaging statements regarding BPI and LFTB."
They plaintiffs say the campaign had five components.
First, they say, ABC repeatedly called LFTB "pink slime" to the point that is essentially renamed the product.
"There is not a more offensive way of describing a food product than to call it 'slime,' which is a noxious, repulsive, and filthy fluid not safe for human consumption," according to the 263-page complaint.
Second, they say, the defendants misled viewers into believing LFBT was "not really beef," that it was a mere "filler" meant to "pump up" the volume of meat.
Third, the plaintiffs accuse the defendants of misleading viewers into thinking the additive is not safe for consumption.
"These statements were intentional and knowingly false statements by defendants," the complaint states. "LFTB has always been safe for public consumption, and the beef trimmings used by BPI came from USDA-inspected and approved beef."
Fourth, they say, the defendants misleadingly portrayed the additive as not nutritious, that "pink slime" would not do consumers "any good."
"Defendants stated that LFTB's protein came primarily from 'connective tissues,' as opposed to muscle meat," the complaint states. "Defendants stated that LFTB was more like 'gelatin' than nutritious beef."
Fifth, the plaintiffs, say the defendants misled viewers into believing they engaged in improper conduct to gain approval for LFTB from the USDA.
"Defendants stated that USDA scientists 'objected' to the use of LFTB in ground beef," the complaint states. "Defendants stated that USDA officials 'with links to the beef industry' 'overruled' the USDA scientists. Defendants stated that the USDA 'labeled' LFTB as meat simply because 'it was pink' in color."
The plaintiffs say this was not merely negligent reporting, but knowing or reckless misstatement of fact - that the defendants' statements were inconsistent with publicly available information and findings provided by the plaintiffs, the USDA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, food safety organizations and beef experts.
They also accuse the defendants of damaging their relationship with other beef producers and grocery stores. They claim the broadcasts had a "devastating impact," so that nearly every major grocery story chain stopped buying meat that included the additive.
"The ABC defendants published and broadcast a blacklist of grocery store chains that sold 'pink slime' to their customers," the complaint states. "The ABC defendants repeatedly called on consumers to find out if their grocery stores sold "pink slime" and repeatedly identified stores that did not promise to ban 'pink slime' from their shelves."
Also named as defendants are ABC correspondent Jim Avila of Washington, D.C.; correspondent David Kerley of McLean, Va.; former U.S. Department of Agriculture employee Carl Custer, of Bethesda, Md.; and former BPI employee Kit Forshee, of Alexander, Ark.
BPI attorney Dan Webb, with Winston Strawn of Chicago, said in a statement that his client filed the lawsuit because its business has been "severely damaged."
The plaintiffs seeks actual and punitive damages for defamation, product disparagement, tortious interference and violations of the South Dakota Agricultural Food Products Disparagement Act.Follow @davejourno
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