BPI’s lawsuit “is without merit,” said Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president of ABC News, in a statement. “We will contest it vigorously.”

Indeed, the network seems ready to go to the mat. Following Governor Branstad’s call for a congressional inquiry in April, Food Safety News reported that:

The journalists who spearheaded last month’s LFTB coverage, however, say they’d be more than happy to speak in front of a congressional panel. They have nothing to hide, they say, because their reporting stuck to the facts, and the facts themselves turned people away from BPI’s signature fare.

“Branstad is a governor. He can ask for a congressional hearing if he wants, but we have nothing to hide. There’s no conspiracy,” ABC News senior correspondent Jim Avila told Food Safety News. “It’s not misinformation. We’ve never said ‘pink slime’ is unsafe.”

It does seem like BPI will have a tough time proving that any of the information that ABC reported was knowingly false. The network’s reports were well sourced, and the most serious criticisms were presented as matters of opinion. Among the nine types of allegedly false statements listed in BPI’s suit, the only hard fact that I couldn’t immediately substantiate was the charge that beef trimmings were “once used only for dog food and cooking oil.”

Still, the lack of demonstrable falsity in ABC News’s reports, and the assumption that BPI won’t prevail in its suit, don’t mean that the network’s reporting was flawless or praiseworthy. The tone of its work definitely played up the “ick factor,” as Discovery News’s Benjamin Radford put it, and the national revulsion that followed was out of step with the situation at hand.

A number of commentators tried to hold back the anxiety and alarm. New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin argued “that kids need cheap sources of low-fat protein,” for instance, and USA Today’s editorial board worried that the LFTB uproar was a distraction from graver food safety concerns. KSCJ-AM, a radio station in Iowa, went as far as severing its affiliation with ABC. According to the Sioux City Journal (located in the city where BPI has its last operational plant):

Dennis Bullock, general manager of station owner Powell Broadcasting, said ABC’s reports “hurt our community and helped lead to a loss of jobs at BPI. Many of our listeners were outraged by the stories on ABC and that helped us reach the decision to switch to CBS.”

Media reports from cattle country continue to be hard on ABC News and sympathetic to BPI. In their articles about the company’s lawsuit, for example, the Sioux City Journal and The Des Moines Register focused on the alleged damages BPI had suffered rather than the merits of its allegations of defamation. That’s unfortunate.

The overwrought nature of ABC’s work notwithstanding, the public should be thankful for the scrutiny of BPI. While the pro-LFTB slogan, “Dude, it’s beef,” may be true in a technical way, it’s a far cry from what most consumers expect when they buy “100% ground beef,” and the recent furor has as much to do with transparency as safety. LFTB and the ammonia used to treat it are not labeled because the FDA does not consider them to be additives or ingredients, but rather “processing aids,” which are “substances that have no technical or functional effect in a finished food but may be present in that food by having been used as ingredients of another food in which they had a technical effect.”

But LFTB is markedly different from raw ground beef. While most news reports have described the ammonia that BPI uses as a “puff” or “small amount,” for instance, few journalists have bothered to ask for specifics. When Food Safety News’s Helena Bottemiller dug a little deeper, she discovered that:

To raise the pH of the product high enough to kill bacteria, BPI says it takes beef from 5.7 or so, where it naturally is, to 8.5. (For those rusty on their chemistry, that’s like going from the slight acidity of black coffee to the alkalinity of baking soda).

When it leaves the facility in a large frozen brick it likely drops closer to pH 7.5, according to the company, which leaves the product about 100 times more alkaline than before it was treated.

While ABC News’s series on “pink slime” may have gone overboard, that acidic fact, and the The New York Times’s 2009 revelations about BPI’s spotty safety record, are more than enough to warrant further investigation—and enough to make the company’s charges of defamation against the network seem like another SLAPP suit designed to prevent journalists and the public from asking important questions.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

 

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.