Tag Archives: BPI

ABC News’ $1.2 billion “pink slime” lawsuit may affect journalism for years

ABC News slimed the beef industry, and producers of “lean, fine-textured beef” (LFTB) in a series of news reports about the product made from beef trimmings and used as an ingredient in much of the ground beef supply. I highlighted it in several posts because it was in my opinion a classic example of scare tactics and false reporting aimed at ratings that resulted in real harm–not just to the company, but the public. As such, it was an example of the kind of media coverage that I think is hurting us as well as an example of what the food industry overall is in for.

Personally, I was very happy to see BPI, the company nearly bankrupted by the attacks, fighting back with a defamation lawsuit against ABC News. A lawsuit that could conceivably cost The Disney Company, owner of ABC, $1.2 billion. This article from Reuters does a great job of exploring in detail the claims and counter claims involving this case. I think it is one that crisis communicators need to be watching carefully. Here are some key issues:

– our laws protect the news media against defamation to a very great degree. This is great giving our high value on free speech. This case has more potential because of state law designed to help protect agriculture. While news media can do just about anything they want, they need to be careful about intentionally saying things they know not to be true. This is largely where this case will hang.

– The tweets of ABC reporter Jim Avila are critical to BPI’s case. So there is going to be an important question raised here. In those tweets he said in effect that pink slime was not meat. But he knew it was meat. But, he didn’t say it wasn’t meat on the air. Is there a difference in defamation between a tweet and an on-air broadcast? This will be very important to watch.

– There is much the ABC reporters did not say that would have contributed to the balance in the story. One example: the prime former BPI employee who they used to attack his former employer lost a wrongful termination lawsuit and the company got a restraining order against him for his threats against the owner. He threatened to find another way to get even. None of this was included in the ABC report–instead they treated him as having high credibility.

– The core question is, is name calling defamation? It’s interesting to read the Reuters article to see how opposing attorneys are using dictionary definitions of “slime” to bolster their case. The law protects the media against name calling, so calling it slime in itself would be protected speech. But to knowing say that something is harmful when you know it isn’t constitutes defamation. So, if somebody says to you, “don’t eat that, it is slime,” is that saying to you it is harmful? I think so, but I am clearly biased. The point however is how cautious journalists need to be in labeling something they are covering. And I think journalists all over are watching this and the result will be a little more caution about the use of “rhetorical hyperbole” which ABC’s lawyers are using to justify their coverage.

Whether the Roths win this case or not, I for one am grateful that they brought it forward. There is far too little accountability on the damage done by journalists. There is a trend developing here, such as Elon Musk and New York Time’s John Broder’s nasty review of the Tesla. Where there was a great imbalance in power in the mainstream media, that power is shifting. In part it is shifting because of irresponsible ratings chasing that has resulted in extremely low trust ratings But the biggest reason is that the monopoly on information distribution and sharing has been forever broken.

 

Now we’ll find out who really creates slime–Beef Products Inc. sues ABC News

Remember the “pink slime” story? There have been few news stories in the last while that so got my goat as this one. First New York Times dubbed this 100% beef product “pink slime”, then celebrity chef Jamie Oliver got in the act and through outrageous demonstration showed that this product was actually poison, and then Jim Avila of ABC News jumped on the band wagon and did stories on this horrific stuff being fed to us and our kids in our innocent hamburger.

This was “infotainment” at some of its worst, and the price paid was high. Beef prices did jump for a bit, schools refused to buy hamburger using the product known in the industry as “lean, finely textured beef,” and grocery stores took it off their shelves. Meat processors had to shut down and the main producer, BPI, laid off over 650 workers.

Now, they are fighting back with a $1.2 billion (yes, billion) lawsuit against ABC News. The legal standard for libel and defamation is exceptionally high, and I am grateful for that because protecting a free and open press is vitally important to all of us. Consequently I think that BPI has a big hill to climb. But I also think that ABC is going to have to answer some tough questions. I only regret that Jamie Oliver was not named as I thought his behavior on that show was inexcusable (see crisisblogger story linked above for link to his show YouTube).

Let me be very clear here. I have no problem with people deciding they don’t want lean, finely textured beef in their hamburger. I have no problem with full disclosure and food companies saying exactly what’s in the food. I have a huge problem with labeling a product with a name like slime, picturing use of ammonia in maintaining food safety as some dubious chemical practice when ammonia itself is present in beef and a normal part of making tons of food products like ice cream. In short, if you are going to tell a story about something like a beef product you don’t like, you better tell more of the story than was told here and you better be careful about how you lead your audiences by false characterizations. In other words, for God’s sake, be honest. There is plenty of bad stuff being done by bad people to tell the truth about it. Don’t go around making it up and then pretend you are a responsible journalist.

BPI was horribly ill-prepared to respond to the crisis as so many in food production are. But I for one am grateful that they are going to try and hold ABC to account for the damage done.

 

 

“Pink Slime” vs. 100% beef–crisis destroys a company and thousands of jobs

Can social media and “black hat” mainstream media destroy jobs and a company unnecessarily? That’s a central question for those involved in crisis management. Clearly, the answer is yes, which is why those of us involved keep saying: prepare now.

Beef Products Inc. (BPI) is the company at the heart of the “pink slime” debate. I’m not sure if Jamie Oliver coined the term “pink slime,” but if he didn’t he certainly sparked the widespread interest in this product. From the huge and predictable reaction, given the sensationalist nature of Oliver’s presentation, in social media, the story leaped to the front pages by a further sensationalist report particularly by ABC News.

What is “pink slime” and why the outcry? It is beef trimmings that has been treated with ammonia hydroxide gas to eliminate harmful bacteria such as e.coli. Oliver’s complaint is about the beef trimmings and in this video of his TV show he holds up gross-looking pieces of beef and suitable disgusting audience reaction when he mentions that this in your school food. I wish that Oliver would be honest and also show the ingredients of much of German and Italian sausage that he no doubt thinks is among the greatest food on earth (and on that subject I would agree). But he is selective, sensationalist and fundamentally dishonest in my mind.

But he got the reaction he wanted. By showing selective ingredients he suitably disgusted the audience. But then he opens a locked cabinet to reveal “all your household chemicals” including a bottle with a skull on it to show it is poison marked “ammonia.”

(screenshot from Jamie Oliver’s presentation on pink slime)

And, of course, that’s the killer because why would you eat anything treated with a chemical that has a skull on it and needs to be kept safe from children in a locked cabinet?

I’ve always enjoyed Jamie Oliver and think a lot of him as a chef and entertainer, but I find this treatment of “pink slime” disgusting and irresponsible. But, never to miss an opportunity to create fear and outrage, ABC jumped on the story (remember ABC was the primary “investigator” behind Toyota’s “software” problems that turned out to be bogus. Never did see an apology or acceptance of responsibility from ABC and Brian Ross on that one.) Because of the now near panic created by the sensationalist TV entertainment and news stories, the retailers reacted by pulling the product from the shelves, schools refused to provide beef products that included “pink slime,” and pressure was put on government regulators for failing to do their job. No doubt we have our “white knight” legislators already rewriting the rule book on beef products to eliminate pink slime from the marketplace.

The upshot? BPI has shut down all but one of its plants, and is now going on the “offensive” to try to recover its brand, its product and its reputation.

But, another strange thing is happening. News reports are now coming out suggesting that the product isn’t necessarily bad or harmful and the company may have been wronged.

What’s the truth? Yes, the “lean, finely textured beef” that has now become labeled as pink slime includes bits and pieces of beef. But, as the label states, it is beef. And the deadly chemical ammonia hydroxide? Turns out it is a natural chemical found in beef, but a small amount is added to what is already in the beef in order to destroy harmful bacteria.

I blogged yesterday about the Culture of Fear. This shows how entertainers like Jamie know how to play to that, and how reporters and producers know how to attract audiences by heightening fears. It shows how crisis normally start in social media or from videos posted on YouTube and rapidly gain momentum both from amplifying messages in social media and mainstream media. Each step of the process heightens the fear and outrage. It shows how companies, understandably sensitive to their own business, respond at the first sign of consumer reaction and pull the product, further amplifying the message that this stuff must really be bad.

I want to throw open the window, say I’m mad as hell and won’t take this any more! When will we come to our senses and realize that we are being played like a violin?

There are three big lessons from this sad story:

1) We’re only at the beginning of a very disruptive reevaluation of our food. It’s going to be painful. And ultimately, it may signal the end of affordable food. I worry about those who, unlike Jamie, can’t afford food using only the most pristine ingredients and processes.

2) Transparency and disclosure are essential. BPI, like all other food manufacturers, had better come clean and fully disclose what they are doing. It’s better to do it in advance. Don’t wait for new labeling laws. If you are hesitant because you think people won’t understand and buy your product, you may have to change what you are doing. The fact is, people are getting very concerned and if what you are doing is right and good, then tell people. If not, change it now while you can and are not forced to close your plants or business because of this kind of overreaction.

3) Prepare. Sorry BPI, but you should have been prepared. Coming out on the offensive now is far far too late. Yes, a massive response was required given the legs the Jamie Oliver hit piece generated. But, this is a warning to all food manufacturers: you may be next. Your product may be “slimed,” given a disgusting name and the chemicals and processes used may be fodder for an attention hungry entertainer or reporter (not sure of the difference these days). You’d better be ready for a massive effort to counter the fear mongering and outrage-hyping that is certain to come about other food products in the very near future.