Friday, September 14, 2012

Beef Products, Inc. Files Lawsuit Against ABC News

Lean Finely Textured Beef is back in the news.

Beef Products, Inc., a company that manufactures LFTB, announced yesterday it had filed a lawsuit against American Broadcast Companies, Inc., ABC News, Inc., three ABC News reporters and others for "knowingly and intentionally publishing false and disparaging statements regarding BPI and its product," according to a company news release.

Lean Finely Textured Beef
BPI is suing the parties for false and disparaging statements about LFTB, which caused more than 700 people to lose their jobs when the company closed three of its facilities after public backlash from ABC News reports on LFTB this spring.

According to the release, BPI alleges the parties "launched a concerted disinformation campaign" against the company.

"For more than 30 years, our family has built and operated companies that are committed to providing consumers with wholesome, safe and nutritious beef. We've created thousands of good jobs for Americans and our Lean Finely Textured Beef has made the leaner ground beef the consumers desire more affordable," Eldon Roth, BPI founder and chief executive officer, said in the release. "The blatantly false and disparaging statements made about our lean beef have done more than hurt my family and our companies, they have jeopardized the future of our employees and their families."

According to the release, BPI and other organizations sent ABC News factual information concerning LFTB and its production, including conclusions from the United States Department of Agriculture, the United States Food and Drug Administration and food safety organizations, yet ABC News allegedly "made false, defamatory and disparaging statements" about the beef product. Public reaction to the news reports, which used the term "pink slime" to refer to LFTB, resulted in product sales declining roughly five million pounds per week. The company later closed three production facilities and laid off hundreds of employees. In addition, according to ABC News, several major restaurant chains, grocery chains and school lunch programs announced they would no longer purchase ground beef containing LFTB after the reports aired.

The reports included interviews with former USDA scientists and Kit Foshee, a former BPI quality assurance manager. In an Associated Press story published today, a "whistle-blower advocacy group" that worked with Foshee called The Food Integrity Campaign said in a statement Sept. 13 that "Foshee was fired from BPI because he refused to participate in the company's 'misrepresentation of the product's safety to the USDA and to consumers.'"

The lawsuit counters that, claiming Foshee was fired from BPI "because he disagreed with, and refused to

follow through on, BPI’s decision to promote more rigorous safety procedures in the beef industry."

Amanda Hill, director of The Food Integrity Campaign, said it was only because of ABC News that Foshee and others involved were able to share "their concerns about BPI."

""Doing so took enormous courage for which they should be honored, not attacked," Hill said in the AP story. "We believe that this product is questionable."

In an ABC News story, Senior Vice President Jeffrey Schneider said the lawsuit is "without merit" and will be vigorously contested.

The AP story quotes Bill Marler, a lawyer for Gerald Zirnstein and Carl Custer -- a former USDA microbiologist and federal food scientist, respectively -- as saying his clients were considering a counter-suit against BPI.

"Our view is that the lawsuit against them, especially as public employees doing their job for food inspection, is completely bogus, without merit and frivolous," Marler said.

After ABC News' stories on LFTB aired, BPI reacted by creating the website, which strove to correct and clarify statements made against LFTB.

Dan Webb, chairman of Winston & Strawn LLP, said in the news release that BPI filed suit because its business was "severely damaged" by the conduct of ABC News.

"As a result, we will be asking a jury to award BPI more than $1 billion in compensatory and statutory damages, plus punitive damages," Webb continued.

One of the damages was the public belief that LFTB was unsafe, countered in the lawsuit with the passage, "In more than 20 years, there has not been a single reported food-borne illness caused by LFTB." According to the lawsuit, BPI received "nearly every significant food safety and innovation award" that could be presented to a food producer. In addition, the lawsuit claims ABC News "knowingly misled the public into believing that LFTB 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."

The term "pink slime" was allegedly picked up from Zirnstein, who referred to LFTB as such in a 2002 email sent to colleagues, ABC News reported. However, according to Agribusiness Freedom Foundation Executive Vice President Steve Dittmer in a column published today, "Webb noted that while [former USDA scientist Gerald] Zirnstein has claimed authorship of the pejorative term 'pink slime' that ABC used to smear the product on its broadcasts, he has not seen the email in which the term is alleged to have been copied by Zirnstein ... USDA, on [Aug. 1] informed BPI that it could not locate a copy of any 2002 email that used the term. In addition, USDA said no such email had been previously produced in response to a Freedom of Information Act request."

LFTB is produced by taking beef trimmings from whole muscle cuts and ground beef and further processing them in a centrifuge to remove the remaining fat. The beef that is left is 94 to 97 percent lean. That is put back into already ground beef to make ground beef products leaner, allowing consumers to purchase a variety of lean-to-fat ratio varieties of ground beef, including some as low as 95/5 and 97/3.
This infographic, published online by the group People for the Truth and also on the site, gives an illustrated description of the LFTB production practice:

Because LFTB undergoes further processing and is therefore more likely to contain bacteria, it is treated with a puff of ammonia gas, which combines with the moisture in lean meat to form ammonium hydroxide, a naturally occurring compound in mammals, according to the BPI website. Adding more ammonium hydroxide raises the pH of LFTB, killing any harmful bacteria that could be present.
According to BPI's website, "ammonia-based compounds are naturally occurring and can be found in every component of a bacon cheeseburger," as illustrated by this graphic:

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