A FORMER manager at Beef Products Inc. (BPI) who wrote a book about how the controversy over the company's main product, lean finely textured beef (LFTB), cost him his job has now filed a lawsuit against ABC News, two ABC reporters, a celebrity chef and a food blogger.
In his suit, Bruce Smith claims that the defendants "willfully and maliciously spread false and misleading statements" about LFTB that caused consumer backlash against the product and a loss of sales so bad that the company had to close three of its four plants and lay off more than 800 people.
He said the defendants engaged in lies and misrepresentations that created "a feeding frenzy."
Smith was an environmental health and safety officer at BPI for 4.5 years and was one of 90 corporate-level managers whose positions were eliminated in the aftermath of the publicity.
He wrote a book titled Pink Slime Ate My Job.
Named as defendants were ABC News, ABC World News, ABC anchor Diane Sawyer, ABC senior correspondent Jim Avila, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and Bettina Siegel, who authors the blog "The Lunch Tray."
Oliver attacked LFTB in an April television show that included pouring liquid household ammonia into ground beef, and Siegel launched an online petition to remove LFTB from the National School Lunch Program that prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to give school districts the option of using ground beef with or without LFTB.
LFTB is an all-beef product made by separating lean beef from the fat in beef trim that's left after carving roasts, steaks and other products from primals. It is used to extend lean ground beef supplies and help hold down ground beef costs.
Its manufacturing process, which includes an application of ammonium hydroxide to destroy pathogens, is approved as safe by USDA and has been used for more than 20 years.
However, Avila filed stories and Sawyer reported them in her news broadcasts earlier this year that denigrated LFTB and referred to it as "pink slime." The coverage was widely picked up and sensationalized by other media outlets and social media and drove many restaurants, grocery stores and school districts away from the product (Feedstuffs, March 19, March 26, April 2 and June 11).
Virtually all school districts have opted not to use ground beef made with LFTB (Feedstuffs, Oct. 15).
Smith filed his suit in the Dakota County District Court in Dakota Dunes, Neb., and is seeking $70,000 in damages for "extreme emotional distress." (Lawsuits brought in Nebraska seeking $70,000 or less in damages cannot be transferred to a federal court.)
BPI also has sued ABC, Avila, Sawyer and two former government scientists, Carl Custer and Gerald Zirnstein, who coined the derogatory name for LFTB (Feedstuffs, Sept. 17). That suit was filed in a South Dakota district court, but ABC won a motion to transfer the case to federal jurisdiction.
BPI is seeking $400 million in damages, an amount that can be tripled under South Dakota law.
Smith, who said he harbors no ill will against BPI and wishes it well in its lawsuit, said he hopes that a victory in his suit will encourage other former BPI employees to file suits.