ABC Grills Beef Expert at "Pink Slime" Trial

In a massive defamation case against the network, food scientists break down the makings of "lean finely textured beef."
Courtesy of ABC

Jurors in the multibillion-dollar defamation lawsuit against ABC over its 2012 reporting about so-called "pink slime" are learning all about the production of beef. About the only thing that 12 jurors and four alternatives in Elk Point, S.D., haven't received these past two days is an actual taste test.

Beef Products Inc. is suing ABC for allegedly stating or implying that its product isn't meat or beef, isn't nutritious, isn't safe, was only approved by government regulators through misconduct and, of course, referring to it as "pink slime." The trial, with massive stakes, commenced on Monday with opening statements before the plaintiff called upon witnesses to offer evidence. BPI's first witness was a marketing professor who testified about the negative messages conveyed in ABC's reporting. Now, BPI is attempting to introduce jurors to what's officially called "lean finely textured beef" (LFTB) and to demystify the process by which it's produced and ends up in ground beef sold in supermarkets throughout the nation.

Just what is LFTB?

Think beef trimmings, or the extra portions of a cattle's carcass when cuts like a T-bone are taken away. These trimmings can be extra fatty, so a company like BPI uses machines to separate and recover the lean meat. They do this by raising the temperature, and later, according to testimony, proteins are extracted from the fat and put back in with the lean. With the addition of some ammonia, the pH level is raised, which according to BPI, kills bacteria and makes the product safer. The product, very finely chopped up by that point, is then frozen and shipped out.

In ABC's reports, which quoted two former USDA scientists and a former BPI employee about concerns, correspondent Jim Avila discussed how the product that was "once used only in dog food and cooking oil" is "now sprayed with ammonia to make it safe to eat and then added to most ground beef as a cheaper filler."

ABC's lawyers insist the reporting was focused on the lack of labeling. 

BPI, incensed that ABC called its product "pink slime" 361 times (even though the term was coined by a former USDA scientist and was used by many other news outlets before 2012), called to the witness stand Dr. Mindy Brashears, a professor of food microbiology at Texas Tech University. She came prepared with pictures and video, and took the jury step-by-step through BPI's process.

"It feels like lean ground beef," she told jurors, holding her hands out as if she was molding a beef patty. 

"It tastes like lean ground beef," she added, discussing the hamburgers made for her at BPI's production facility.

She spent substantial time of nearly two full days on the witness stand addressing the meaning of "beef," and why calling LFTB anything less or implying it's unsafe amounts to a falsehood.

South Dakota's Agricultural Food Product Disparagement Act punishes statements about the safety of perishable food not grounded on reasonable, reliable scientific data, so when it was ABC's turn to cross-examine Dr. Brashears, its lawyer, Dane Butswinkas, brought up how the product had tested positive for e.coli and salmonella and how concern about contamination levels had caused the USDA to at one point suspend BPI's product from being served as part of school lunches.

Dr. Brashears also was presented with documents from the regulatory approval process and had to face tough questions about what scientists were saying in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Butswinkas also brought up the fact that the USDA once told BPI that LFTB was "more like a meat food product," a broad category that includes stuff like hot dogs.

She had to acknowledge much of this, although prompted by BPI's lawyer later on redirect, she attempted to explain that much of this is common in the beef industry, and that BPI addressed points about its process with the USDA, and how the agency approved everything and never decided to shut BPI's plants down.

The case now continues with testimony from Dr. Kerri Gehring, an associate professor of animal science who is discussing the nutrition of LFBT.

Next week, the trial moves from the taste of beef to the taste of modern media when the jury is scheduled to hear depositions from Avila, former World News host Diane Sawyer, other ABC employees and some of the sources of the "pink slime" reports.

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