The company that makes what it calls lean finely textured beef, the food product that critics call "pink slime," has announced a defamation suit against ABC News after reports on the product by ABC and others led to reduced demand.
Media organizations have frequently reported on the product that often was added to ground beef sold in supermarkets and served in restaurants and schools.
"The lawsuit is without merit," said Jeffrey Schneider, Senior Vice President of ABC News, which ran several such reports. "We will contest it vigorously."
Beef Products Inc., BPI Technology Inc. and Freezing Machines Inc., collectively known as BPI, first publicly indicated Wednesday its intention to share details of "a major lawsuit regarding defamation of its beef product, lean finely textured beef" today.
The product, abbreviated as LFTB, is made of beef trimmings that are heated and spritzed with ammonia gas to kill bacteria. Blending in the product can reduce the price of ground beef. The USDA says that the product is safe to eat and reduces the overall fat content of beef products.
In late March, governors from three meat-producing states walked through a BPI plant with reporters and defended LFTB. "It's beef, but it's leaner beef which is better for you," Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said. "We take this off the market then we end up with a fatter product that's going to cost more and is going to increase the obesity problem in this country."
Then USDA scientist Gerald Zirnstein first coined the term "pink slime" to describe what the industry calls LFTB in an email he sent to USDA colleagues in 2002. He and former USDA colleague Carl Custer continue to be outspoken critics of LFTB.
After a flurry of news reports earlier this year, several national grocery chains publicly vowed to discontinue selling beef containing the product, joining some other supermarket chains that claimed they never did.
Restaurants, including McDonald's, Burger King and Taco Bell, had earlier stopped buying it.
In early April, the USDA approved requests by BPI and others that they be allowed to label products containing LFTB. Given the choice by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, many school districts refused to accept beef with the "pink slime." Only three states participating in the National School Lunch Program -- Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, all states with BPI facilities -- agreed to order ground beef that might contain the product, according to a June 6 ABC News report.
With demand apparently falling, BPI announced in late March it would temporarily suspend operations at plants in Texas, Kansas and Iowa, but continue to operate one in South Dakota. The company blamed social media and news organizations, specifically ABC News, for what it called a gross misrepresentation of its product and process.
On April 2, AFA Foods, a Pennsylvania-based competitor to BPI, filed for bankruptcy protection, citing reduced demand stemming from the media's coverage of "pink slime."