On March 21, 2012, NBC led the nightly news with reporting about the Trayvon Martin case. CBS led with a report that the NFL was imposing unprecedented sanctions on a team for a scheme that involved paying athletes to injure opponents.
It was a slow news day, and the Big Three newscasts had to choose unconventional leads. But ABC’s lead on World News was, even in that context, unlikely. It was news the network had played an integral role in creating: The program’s aggressive coverage of an obscure food product was yielding results, and Diane Sawyer announced that some of America’s largest supermarket chains were “taking action,” discontinuing the sale of ground beef that contained a product known as lean finely textured beef or, as ABC repeatedly referred to it on air, “pink slime.”
Though the term had been used before, both within the U.S. Department of Agriculture and in a 2009 New York Times report
, the twelve reports on “pink slime” that aired on World News
in the month between March 7 and April 3, 2012, broadcast the term to millions of viewers in an alarming fashion. The initial March 7 report alone included, in ABC’s words, “stunning” and “startling” revelations that beef trimmings “once used only in dog food and cooking oil” might be be hiding in your dinner.
In the wake of the broadcasts, Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), the country’s main producer of lean finely textured beef, was forced to shutter three of its four factories and to lay off over 650 employees. It has now filed suit against ABC, alleging that the network libeled and defamed the product.
ABC’s reporting on “pink slime” is the latest dustup in a long line of crusading, consumer-oriented journalism, aimed primarily at women, that has prompted legal backlash. There was the 1989 60 Minutes broadcast that sent apple prices plummeting after it warned that a chemical called alar, which was sprayed on apples to prevent their falling off trees prematurely, caused cancer. Alar was voluntarily withdrawn from the market after the Environmental Protection Agency considered banning it, but not before apple growers had filed an unsuccessful libel lawsuit against CBS News.
Then came ABC’s 1992 report that revealed unsanitary practices in back rooms of the grocery-store chain Food Lion. Two ABC producers lied on employment applications in order to obtain jobs with the grocery chain and get access to those back rooms. The company subsequently sued ABC, claiming that the broadcast cost it $1.5 billion in stock value and $233 million in profits. A $5.5 million verdict in Food Lion’s favor was ultimately overturned, and ABC was ordered to pay the chain just $2 in damages.
The following year, Dateline NBC rigged crash tests of a GM pickup truck by using explosives to ensure that a fire would erupt if the truck crashed when gas was leaking from it. NBC settled a defamation suit filed by GM.
In cases like “pink slime,” veteran TV news producer Rick Kaplan says litigation is not unexpected. “They knew when they did this they were going to get sued, so I’m sure they did it with the lawyers hand in hand,” says Kaplan, who produced the Food Lion report and spent nearly two decades at ABC before going on to serve as the president first of CNN and then of MSNBC. ABC was holding BPI’s feet to the fire, he says, and “ought to be lauded for that.”
BPI has insisted all along that its meat was not “pink slime” but a product with a proud history. One of the company’s founders, Eldon Roth (the other is his wife, Regina), invented a process that salvaged lean beef from the fatty meat trimmings that remain after steaks are carved out of a carcass; those trimmings had previously been discarded or used only in high-fat ground beef. Roth’s invention lowered the cost of the ground beef sold to school cafeterias, fast-food restaurants, and supermarkets across the country.
It also made that beef safer to eat. The Washington Post once described a BPI factory as a “fortress against potentially lethal bacteria.” BPI’s production process, which involves spraying beef with ammonia, was designed to prevent the sort of contamination that in 1993 claimed the lives of three children who had consumed undercooked burgers at Jack in the Box.
Roth’s innovation made him, and the company, prosperous. Prior to ABC’s reporting onslaught, BPI was operating four processing plants, employing over 1,300 people in the United States, and raking in over $115 million in profits annually. Mitt Romney heralded Roth’s innovation in his 2010 book No Apology and cited him as an archetypical American success story, writing that while “a young Eldon Roth held a blue-collar job in a cold-storage plant . . . Eldon now owns a very large jet.” Roth and his wife together donated $190,000 to super PACs supporting Romney and have generously supported other Republican political candidates over the years.
ABC’s broadcasts have dramatically changed BPI’s fortunes: Grocery chains stopped carrying ground beef that contained “pink slime,” and some fast-food chains swore it off. The company’s legal complaint alleges that ABC’s stories are costing it more than $20 million in revenue every month.