If the case is not dismissed, it’s likely to be one of the most high-profile defamation suits to go to trial in recent memory, and a rare test of state food disparagement laws. The last big case involving food libel laws like those found in South Dakota involved a lawsuit brought against Oprah Winfrey by a Texas cattle producer during the mad cow disease scare of the mid-1990s. On her show, Winfrey swore off eating beef and said the “disease could make AIDS look like the common cold.” The Texas cattle producer was ultimately unable to prove that Winfrey had made any false statements.
Reporting on Reporting About Pink Slime
Whatever happens in court, the hundreds of jobs lost due to last year’s “pink slime” coverage don’t appear to be coming back anytime soon. One of those former BPI employees is Bruce Smith.
Smith worked at BPI for four and a half years as the environmental, health, and safety director, as well as its senior counsel. He’s written a book called Pink Slime Ate My Job and was quoted in a press release for the book saying, “I am fighting back against the media and those persons whose irresponsible and tortious actions cost me my job.” Apparently, that includes me.
When I tried to interview Smith, I hit a wall with Lisa Smith, a spokesperson for his small Iowa-based publisher Rauttnee. “Since the traditional and social media interests, for the most part, chose not to report the truth about the matter from the start,” Smith e-mailed me, “he has no reason to believe that you, on behalf of Time, Inc., would be any different. The real story to be explored lies within the media reporting itself and the lack of accountability your profession hides behind at the expense of the truth resulting in workers unjustly losing their jobs. Acceptable collateral damage? Please govern yourself accordingly.”
So I took Lisa Smith’s advice. Maybe the pink slime story one year on is actually about the coverage itself. Indeed, a significant part of BPI’s problem was that many news outlets (including TIME) reported about the ABC News coverage, often recycling what ABC and other outlets were reporting.
Meanwhile, millions of Americans tweeted about that same coverage and commented about it on Facebook. And throughout it all, of course, the media and social media users were endlessly repeating the phrase “pink slime.” Without that negative moniker, BPI might be doing just fine these days.
At TIME, we ran several articles last year about the product and BPI, some simply reporting what others were saying, and a few that took a closer look at the product. All of our coverage included the phrase “pink slime.” But we never ran the now-infamous photo of what some claimed is LFTB but looks more like soft-serve strawberry ice cream than beef.
To this day, the origins of that photo remain a mystery. Even the food scientists I talked to weren’t sure where it came from or what it was. One of them believes it may have been a step in the process at BPI, but the company vehemently denies it’s from one of its plants. Others think it came from a polystyrene plant that made packaging material. “If you look around at the background in the photograph, it’s obvious that it’s not a food plant,” says Acuff of Texas A&M, referring to the guys in street shoes and the unlined cardboard box, both of which Acuff says would violate USDA regulations. “This is definitely not BPI and the product is not a food.”
The Future of Food?
Perhaps the most persuasive criticism of LFTB is not a criticism of the product itself, but of the fact that very few of us knew it was in our beef. BPI argues that its product is beef and doesn’t need different labeling. But we live in a post-Food Inc., world, one with crop-to-cup coffee and farm-to-table dinners. More than ever, Americans want to understand where their food comes from and the processing it went through along the way. As a result, many of us are disturbed — even indignant — to learn that a product that isn’t processed like traditional ground beef can be labeled as such.
We’re also turned off when food processing doesn’t look like something we could do at home — even though most modern, large-scale food production involves unfamiliar industrial processes. “We have a consumer that wants to understand where their food comes from,” says Dana Hanson, a food scientist at North Carolina State University. “But the reality is that … if we’re going to produce food that is going to feed the millions of people in this country, we can’t use kitchen techniques.”
Take BPI’s use of ammonia, which for most Americans conjures images of household cleansers, but was in fact applied in a gaseous form. “That’s where I think a lot of the confusion came,” Hanson says. “It’s not as if you’re taking floor-cleaning household ammonia and dumping it in a washtub like some folks have illustrated. When ammonia in a gas form comes in contact with meat, it ceases to exist as the ammonia we commonly think of.”
Food scientists argue that as populations continue to increase, we will by necessity become more reliant on these types of industrial food products and processes. “Pink slime” may simply have been an early skirmish in what will be an ongoing clash between the demands of feeding entire countries and the cultural trend toward whole foods, sustainable food sources, and farm-to-table awareness. In the end, economics may tip the scales one way or another: Many in the industry think that if beef prices were to rise substantially, a product like LFTB that can substantially reduce prices would quickly make a comeback.
Since last year’s “pink slime” coverage, BPI’s founder Roth has largely stayed silent. He was reportedly despondent after BPI was forced to close some of its plants last spring. But BPI is still operating, and has recieved significant support from local communities and politicians. Three states, in fact — Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota, all home to a current or former BPI plant – still serve BPI’s product in its school. And scattered reports suggest that demand is picking up, if slowly.
Update 3/6/13: A previous version of this article included reference to a lawsuit brought by a former BPI employee against many of the same parties being sued by BPI; the reference was removed after we learned the lawsuit had been dropped.