Judge moves ABC 'pink slime' lawsuit to trial

Allegations against ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer dismissed from lawsuit.

South Dakota circuit court Judge Cheryle Gering of the Union County Circuit Court in Elk Point, S.D., this week advanced a potential $5.7 billion defamation lawsuit against American Broadcasting Companies Inc. (ABC) that alleges that ABC damaged Beef Products Inc. (BPI) by referring to its signature product, lean finely textured beef (LFTB), as "pink slime" in an ABC news series. The judge did dismiss claims against anchor Diane Sawyer but said ABC and reporter Jim Avila must present a defense against the allegations.

BPI brought the suit in 2012 (Feedstuffs, Sept. 17, 2012), charging that ABC, Sawyer and Avila damaged the company's reputation in newscasts that raised questions about the product's safety and wholesomeness and prompted consumer backlash against LFTB that cost BPI so much business that it was forced to close three of its four plants and lay off 600 plant workers (Feedstuffs, April 2, 2012).

Reuters reported that Gering said in a hearing last month a jury could determine "that there is clear and convincing evidence that ABC broadcasting and Mr. Avila were reckless, that defendants had obvious reason to doubt the veracity of informants and that they engaged in purposeful avoidance of the truth.”

Sawyer was cleared since her position as an anchor limits her involvement in researching stories.

"We are pleased that the court dismissed all claims against Diane Sawyer," ABC said in a statement. "We welcome the opportunity to defend the 'ABC News' reports at trial and are confident that we will ultimately prevail."

BPI's lawyer J. Erik Connolly told Reuters that his client looks forward to proving how ABC "engaged in a disinformation campaign against a company that produces safe and nutritious beef, leading to billions of dollars in damages and hundreds of lost jobs."

LFTB is an all-beef product made by separating lean beef and the fat in beef trim that's left over after carving roasts, steaks and other products from primals. It has been used to extend lean ground beef supplies and hold down lean ground beef prices. During processing, the product is sprayed with a mist of ammonium hydroxide, which is an accepted method for destroying pathogens. LFTB, used for more than 20 years, has been approved as safe by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The jury trial is scheduled for June 5, 2017.

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