Journalists subpoenaed in ‘pink-slime’ suit

BPI wants emails from NYT's Michael Moss, public-health lawyer Michele Simon, and others

At least four journalists and a writer have been ordered to hand over documents to attorneys representing the largest manufacturer of “pink slime,” the latest development in Beef Products Inc.’s $1.2-billion defamation lawsuit against ABC News and others.

Three journalists from Food Safety News were served subpoenas Wednesday compelling them to turn over correspondence with ABC and other defendants, according to publisher Bill Marler. Dan Flynn, editor of the site, reporter James Andrews, and former reporter Gretchen Goetz all were ordered to send emails and notes to BPI lawyers.

CJR confirmed that subpoenas were also sent to Michele Simon, a prominent writer on food policy, and Michael Moss, a New York Times writer whose 2009 reporting on contaminated meat helped him win a Pulitzer Prize the next year. In a phone interview Friday, however, Moss said his order had been stayed due to action by Times attorneys.

An associate at Winston & Strawn LLP, the Chicago law firm representing BPI in the lawsuit, did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

“Lean, finely textured beef,” which is referred to by critics as “pink slime,” is leftover trimmings that are spun in a centrifuge to separate out of the fat, then treated with ammonia to kill any pathogens. The lean trimmings are then used by restaurants, grocery stores, and other food sellers to lower the cost of the ground beef they sell. In late 2009, The New York Times ran a series of pieces that cited dozens of cases in which things like E. coli and salmonella had been found in BPI’s meat.

Pink slime Lean, finely textured beef is frozen on a large drum as part of its manufacturing process at the Beef Products Inc.’s plant in South Sioux City, Neb. in 2012. (Associated Press/Nati Harnik)


As CJR wrote in 2012 when BPI filed its suit:

But LFTB, however, didn’t break into the American consciousness with force until ABC World News with Diane Sawyer reported in March that “pink slime … once used only in dog food and cooking oil …” is now in 70 percent of the ground beef in US supermarkets.” The segment, by Jim Avila, focuses on two former USDA scientists-turned-whistleblowers, including microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein, who coined the derisive term in a 2002 memo.

BPI alleges that news reports between March and April 2012 amounted to “a month-long vicious, concerted disinformation campaign” that cost the company more than $400 million and resulted in more than 700 layoffs and the closing of three of its factories.

The orders, copies of which were obtained by CJR, call on the journalists to provide “all communications between you and ABC or any other defendants between January 1, 2012 and December 31, 2012.” The other defendants named in the suit include three ABC journalists and prominent food experts often quoted as sources.

Marler, a foodborne illness attorney who is also representing two former Department of Agriculture officials being sued in the case, said Friday he had acquired additional legal representation for Food Safety News employees. The site is funded partially by Marler and partially through digital advertising, he said.

“Each person who received a subpoena will have their own arguments for or against supplying the records that were asked for,” Marler said.

UPDATE: Though subpoenas served to Flynn, Andrews and Goetz call for the documents by August 8, Marler said Food Safety News attorneys will challenge the order. “We dispute that [BPI attorneys] are entitled to the documents under various state shield laws protecting reporters from such intrusion,” Marler wrote in an email.

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti. Tags: , ,