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'Pink Slime' Case Pits S.D. Meat Producer Against ABC News


A jury trial is underway in a South Dakota courtroom this week. The case pits a company called Beef Products Inc. against a media giant, ABC. At issue is the network's coverage several years back of a meat product known as pink slime. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: In 2012, ABC News aired a story about the use of beef trimmings called lean finely textured beef, or pink slime, as it was dubbed by its detractors. The story was from correspondent Jim Avila.


JIM AVILA: Beef trimmings that were once used only in dog food and cooking oil now sprayed with ammonia to make them safe to eat and then added to most ground beef as a cheaper filler.

AUBREY: Now, ABC was certainly not the first news organization to shine a spotlight on the product, and in 2011, food TV celebrity Jamie Oliver got the attention of lots of people when he showed his audience his interpretation of the process used to make so-called pink slime.


JAMIE OLIVER: They take all those trimmings. They put it into a centrifuge, and they spin it.

AUBREY: The spinning separates the fat from the lean meat. Oliver then took out a bottle of ammonia. He poured it over the meat. He said processors use this chemical to kill off pathogens such as E. coli.


OLIVER: OK, this is not fit for human consumption.

AUBREY: People who watched this video and read many of the other stories reacted strongly to the name pink slime and the images that were circulating. Here's food historian Maureen Ogle.

MAUREEN OGLE: People were completely disgusted. And yes, there was a definite revulsion factor.

AUBREY: She points out that there was no known foodborne illness outbreak linked to pink slime, but the ick factor was enough to turn people off. Fast food chains, including McDonald's, announced they would not use the controversial beef trimmings. This had already happened by the time ABC News aired their story, but BBI, the leading producer of lean finely textured beef, sued ABC for defamation. They're seeking more than a billion dollars in damages.

IVAN WASSERMAN: It's a big case.

AUBREY: That's food lawyer Ivan Wasserman. He's not involved in the case.


WASSERMAN: In order to win the case, the beef product company will have to convince the jury that ABC not only said something that is false, but they would also have to show that ABC acted with actual malice.

AUBREY: He says the company will also have to show that their losses were due to ABC's coverage, and Wasserman says all this could be difficult to prove. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.


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