Five years ago, when officials with Dakota Dunes, South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc. filed a defamation lawsuit against ABC News over its misleading news coverage of what it called, “pink slime,” legal experts recognized that the meat processing firm would face a steep climb, including efforts to rebuild its public image.
As part of its lawsuit, BPI claimed the TV network damaged the company and its image by leading consumers to believe the product – lean, finely textured beef (LFTB) – was unsafe.
Five years later, at the end of June this year, BPI walked out of court halfway through the defamation trial with an undisclosed, large monetary settlement. Many legal observers see it as a victory for the meat processing company and a defeat for ABC News because its parent company, Walt Disney Co. agreed to pay the substantial settlement.
Eldon and Regina Roth, owners of Beef Products Inc., say the agreement settling the defamation lawsuit provides the company with a strong foundation on which to grow the business in the coming years, while allowing the company to focus on achieving its vision created by the Roth family.
In an interview with MEAT+POULTRY, Eldon Roth talks about the company’s plans moving forward into 2018. “We will remain focused on rebuilding our core business, working with our long-term supply and customer base, and continuing the work to reestablish ground beef and other markets,” Roth says. “At the same time, we are moving forward with new product development, and will be very focused on growing the Dos Rios taco meat/cooked meat line of business, as well as whole-muscle enhancement processes. It will be an exciting time for us, as we get to look forward instead of back.”
Roth is also hopeful the lawsuit and trial will have a positive effect on the American meat industry. “We certainly hope the ABC lawsuit will result in a more responsible approach by journalists when dealing with subject matter like this,” Roth says. “Investigating sources has to be an important part of the story versus just those fitting an agenda. This, and other recent successful defamation actions, may result in journalists taking the time to fully investigate their stories and offer the presentation of fair and balanced reporting,” he says. “Time will tell. While we did not pursue the lawsuit for any reason other than to right the wrong against BPI, we do hope others will recognize the value in standing up for themselves and what they believe to be right,” he says.
Barry Carpenter, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), agrees with Roth. Carpenter says the case against ABC made clear that reporting the truth is not optional. “Reporters must set personal viewpoints aside and present the facts if they are to serve the public good,” he says. “To the extent that this case made clear the ramifications of failing to report the facts in an unbiased manner, it will, we hope, send a cautionary note to journalists and, in turn, benefit the meat industry and the public broadly.”
Terms of the financial settlement between BPI and Walt Disney Co., were not disclosed as part of the agreement. Yet when the settlement was announced a month into what had looked like an eight-week trial, BPI officials and their lawyers seemed happy with the outcome.
“We are extraordinarily pleased with this settlement,” Chicago-based BPI lawyer Dan Webb said at the time, just outside the Union County Courthouse in Elk Point, South Dakota. BPI and the Roth family also issued a statement saying, “While this was not an easy road to travel, it was necessary to begin rectifying the harm we suffered as a result of what we believed to be biased and baseless reporting. Through this process, we have again established what we all know to be true about lean finely textured beef. It is beef, and it is safe, wholesome and nutritious.”
In addition to charging that ABC News’ reporting about BPI’s product was false and damaging, the BPI lawsuit also claimed that ABC knowingly used false information about the beef product in its news reports, and interfered with BPI’s business relationships with its customers.