by Jeff Clemetson, Editor
Remember back in March when consumers, food safety advocates and media outlets (including Health and Fitness Talk) were in an uproar over pink slime, the ammonia-treated byproducts of large-scale beef production that was being added to ground beef? Supermarket chains and even fast food companies quickly wanted to distance themselves from carrying the controversial product and the episode became a rare victory for the power of people’s health over corporate profits. Well, the corporation that produces pink slime (or as they refer to it – lean finely textured beef) also remembers all the negative press and consumer pressure us do-gooders put on their poor, questionable products as well.
Last week, Beef products, Inc. (BPI) filed a $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit in the company’s home state of South Dakota against ABC News, ABC News anchor Dianne Sawyer, reporters Jim Avila and David Kerley; the USDA microbiologist who first coined the phrase “pink slime” Gerald Zirnstein; former federal food scientist Carl Custer; and former BPI quality assurance manager Kit Foshee. The suit alleges that reporting on the company’s products unlawfully caused its business to suffer and resulted in lost profits and the closing of three plants and 700 layoffs. Lawyers for BPI point to over 200 “misleading” statements by the news team at ABC that affected the company, citing a 1994 state food-disparagement law in South Dakota that allows companies to sue anyone if they knowingly spread false information that a food product is unsafe.
“The lawsuit is without merit,” said ABC News senior president in a statement released on Thursday. “We will contest it vigorously.”
Legal experts on defamation and food safety say BPI’s lawsuit will be extremely difficult to prove, pointing to other high-profile food-disparagement cases that have failed in the past, such as the 1998 case brought against talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and animal rights activist Howard Lyman who were sued by a group of Texas ranchers over remarks made about the safety of hamburgers during the mad cow disease scare in the late 90s.
Thirteen states have food-disparagement laws in place – South Dakota, Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas. Although difficult to prove, these laws allow companies to use threat of lawsuit to silence critics of the corporate food system. In a time when media outlets such as Health and Fitness Talk and many others are trying to wake American consumers up to the dangers that our chemically-treated food system poses to their health, the establishment has laws on its books to intimidate journalists and activists from raising their voices.
Imagine if BPI manages to win its suit against ABC. The very next day Monsanto would sue the pants off the fledgling organic movement in this country and we’d see any farm or company that produces health food shuttered for ever once advocating that GMO foods and foods grown with herbicides and pesticides are less healthy than organic, heirloom foods. The fact that these large corporations already have the ability to bankrupt their organic counterparts in court by bringing costly lawsuits against them is scary enough. A win for one of these companies like BPI would be absolutely devastating.
Despite the obvious threat of costly defamation and food-disparagement lawsuits, it is important to keep up the good fight and continue to educate and inform the public about the health risks of mass-produced food. The signs that consumers are ready to use the information to make changes in their food habits are all around us – the growing number of organic products available, the initiatives brought before legislators to label GMOs and, yes, the closing down of plants that make pink slime.