ELK POINT, S.D. (CN) – A California meat company executive and an attorney for ABC sparred over the exact shade of raw meat in a video deposition played in the basement of the Union County courthouse in Elk Point, South Dakota, Friday morning.
“It’s low-grade red,” said Olivera Abel, CEO of Jensen Meats of San Diego, when asked to describe the color of lean finely textured beef (LFTB), the so-called “pink slime” manufactured by South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc. and the subject of an ongoing defamation trial against ABC News.
Abel’s testimony appeared in a videotaped deposition.
“Was it pink?” the ABC attorney asked. “Why can’t you call it pink?”
The BPI vs. ABC News $1.9 billion defamation case is closing its third week with a number of witnesses for the beef producer suggesting business for the USDA-approved beef trim bottomed-out following Jim Avila’s ABC News series reports in March 2012, in which he referred to lean finely textured beef as having once been deemed only suitable for “dog food and cosmetics.”
But Abel was staunch in his defense of the product his company, Jensen Meats, added at low percentages into ground beef they sold to grocery stores in California, pointing out that it wasn’t safety or quality concerns but what he called a “media scandal” that led to retailers across the country canceling orders for LFTB.
“Is it safe to eat?” asked an attorney for BPI.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Would you sell a product that was not safe for consumers?” the attorney pressed.
Earlier that morning, the jurors in Elk Point saw a videotaped deposition from Chad Martin, of Tyson Fresh Meats, who disputed ABC’s reports that LFTB was – prior to BPI’s use of high-powered centrifuges to separate lean beef from fat – only a non-edible byproduct. Hormel Foods had been purchasing the beef trim since the 1980s for hot dogs, Martin said.
“Is hot dogs something a human would eat?” the attorney asked.
“Yes,” Martin said.
The central issue emerging in this trial – which has a potential payout that is three times as steep as actual damages thanks to South Dakota’s Agricultural Foods Product Disparagement Act – is a distinction over terms. Both sides agree on how LFTB is made – trimmed away from fat headed otherwise for the rendering bin. They just don’t agree on what to call it.
When consumers called to complain to Jensen Foods, Abel said he instructed customer service representatives to respond that the company didn’t sell “pink slime.”
“We don’t have one price fax in our building saying we buy pink slime,” he said defiantly.
Divisions emerged over the taste of the meat byproduct as well.
Rickey Fahle, a former executive with Fairbanks Farms who purchased BPI’s product, talked about his time on Oklahoma State University’s meat-judging team in college. He assured the jury that on blind taste tests, customers preferred hamburgers made from ground beef mixed with LFTB.
“It’s juicier,” he said.
ABC’s attorney pushed him to explain why, if the beef mixture apparently pleased customers, he wouldn’t advocate for a burger made entirely from LFTB.
“It’s a quality issue,” he said, acknowledging why most beef producers opt for ground beef mixes with an LFTB contribution capped at 25 percent.
Following the airing of ABC News’ reports, BPI plants closed and orders from retailers started specifically asking for LFTB-free beef mixes. BPI – who says its beef product is safe to eat and entirely beef – has spent much of the week bringing beef industry personnel to the witness stand to show that ABC’s reports were to blame for the Dakota Dunes, South Dakota company’s woes. Earlier articles by The New York Times and the Washington Post, which documented the same meat-harvesting technology practiced by BPI, did not meet with the same scrutiny.
A final battle over language unfolded Friday afternoon during testimony over ammonia. BPI says treating LFTB with ammonia is a safety precaution to ward off pathogens. But ABC attorneys presented emails from plant managers complaining of the odor on workers. Asked to respond to whether or not the chemical was safe for food consumption, Fahle said, “I prefer Ph-enhanced,” opting not to use the attorney’s term “ammoniated” beef.
The attorneys for BPI are expected to finish their arguments next week, opening the way for ABC to begin calling its own witnesses before the bench.