One Year Later, The Makers of ‘Pink Slime’ Are Hanging On, and Fighting Back

As the meat industry again makes news thanks to an endless stream of articles about horse meat masked as beef popping up all over Europe, the “pink slime” story is still playing itself out in courthouses, law offices and the one BPI plant still in operation.

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Nati Harnik / REUTERS

But not everyone at the USDA was happy with BPI’s methods, or the agency’s approval. In 2002, USDA microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein sent a private e-mail to a fellow USDA scientist, calling BPI’s product “pink slime” and writing, “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”

“It’s pink. It’s pasty. And it’s slimy looking. So I called it ‘pink slime,’” Zirnstein told the Associated Press last year. “It resonates, doesn’t it?”

For years, Zirnstein’s term didn’t get the chance to resonate because the memo was seen only inside the USDA. But that changed in December 2009 when The New York Times published an article questioning the safety of BPI’s product. The piece cited documentation of E. coli and salmonella pathogens being found “dozens of times in Beef Products meat,” including in shipments to public schools. It also quoted LFTB buyers who complained about a strong ammonia odor coming from the product. Perhaps most significantly, however, the article quoted Zirnstein calling the product “pink slime,”  introducing the phrase into the public sphere.

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Still, it wasn’t until a year and a half later that the phrase became a full-fledged internet meme. In April 2011, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver purported to replicate the process used to make LFTB on his show, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. On the segment, Oliver douses household ammonia on some beef and then places the mixture into a front-loading washing machine. It’s eye-grabbing, shocking, and Oliver’s end product looks thoroughly disgusting. If the bit was meant to gross people out, it worked. Of course, Oliver’s stunt didn’t resemble BPI’s actual process, which applies ammonia in a gaseous, not liquid, form — and doesn’t take place in a washing machine. But that hasn’t prevented the clip from being viewed close to 1.7 million times. (Oliver declined to discuss the segment though a representative, who said the celebrity chef had “no spare time right now.”)

It took almost another year for the ABC News series to air, portraying Zirnstein as a reluctant whistleblower, and claiming that 70% of U.S. ground beef contained LFTB, a product that was once used for dog food but had since been deemed fit for humans. “It’s economic fraud,” said Zirnstein in one of the ABC News reports. “It’s not fresh ground beef. It’s a substitute. It’s a cheap substitute being added in.”

ABC News aired 11 segments on pink slime between March 7 and April 3 on both ABC World News and Good Morning America along with 14 online reports. According to the lawsuit filed by BPI, the plant repeatedly gave the network information about its product to dispute some of ABC’s claims, including documents showing that LFTB had been deemed safe by the USDA. BPI claims that the news network was just trying to boost ratings. ABC News refused to comment for this story, but in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed in October, the network argued that it “repeatedly stated that LFTB was safe to eat” and that the term pink slime “while unflattering, does not convey false facts about the color or texture of LFTB and is precisely the kind of ‘imaginative expression’ and ‘rhetorical hyperbole’ that is constitutionally protected.”

A number of food scientists were interviewed last year when “pink slime” seemed to have taken over the Internet. Today, several of them say that a lot of the information they presented to reporters did not end up in the coverage.

“I talked to a lot of media people last year,” says Jim Dickson, an Iowa State University professor who has conducted research for BPI. “On one particularly memorable day, I talked to four different media sources. I can tell you that I provided them with the scientific basis for things like why they used an ammonia-injection process for food safety. In roughly 80% of the cases, none of that information made it into the news.”

Dickson says at one point he was criticized by some in the meat industry for not providing enough information about BPI to the media. “My only response was, well, they had the information. They chose not to use it.”

Gary Acuff, director of the Texas A&M Center for Food Safety, who has publicly defended BPI in the past, similarly says he believes ABC News elected to leave out facts about the safety of LFTB. “The easiest way to get people’s attention is to start telling them something they’re eating is disgusting or poisonous,” he says. “And boy, you can get their attention fast.”

As ABC News attempts to get the entire lawsuit dismissed, the parties are wrangling over where a trial would be held. The case has been sent to federal court, but BPI would like it moved back to South Dakota state court, where the company would likely face a more sympathetic jury, says Erika Eckley, a staff attorney at the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation at Iowa State University.

Wherever the case plays out, however, Eckley says BPI faces an uphill legal battle. “The big thing they’ll have to prove is disparagement,” says Eckley. “They’re going to have show there was an implication that [LFTB] was unsafe — and I’m not sure they’re going to be able to prove that.” ABC News argues that its reports never said BPI’s product was unsafe; and it’s true that the network made clear that LFTB had been approved by the USDA. So the case is likely to turn on whether BPI can convince a jury that ABC’s repeated use of the phrase “pink slime” implied that it wasn’t safe to eat.

The case will be one of the first challenging First Amendment protections for news outlets in the social media era. One notable piece of evidence cited in BPI’s lawsuit is a single Tweet by reporter Jim Avila, who wrote: “It’s just not what it purports to be. Meat.” One of BPI’s arguments is that ABC News intentionally portrayed its product as something other than beef. (The USDA considers LFTB to be beef.)

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