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Agricultural News

Agribusiness Freedom Foundation Authors Op-Ed, "BPI Near Getting ABC & Avila in Courtroom"

Fri, 17 Mar 2017 15:05:39 CDT

Agribusiness Freedom Foundation Authors Op-Ed, Agribusiness Freedom Foundation Executive Vice President Steve Dittmer, authored the following Op-Ed article entitled "BPI Near Getting ABC & Avila in Courtroom," distributed in the AFF Sentinel email newsletter this week.

Nearly five years after ABC News and reporter Jim Avila almost totally destroyed BPI's business and reputation, the company is finally scheduled to get ABC News in the courtroom to answer for its actions.

In the spring of 2012, ABC News and its anchor Diane Sawyer ran a series of reports from Jim Avila on lean finely textured beef (LFTB), a beef product Avila allowed a former meat inspector/food activist, Gerald Zirnstein, describe distastefully as "pink slime." Avila's reports led viewers to believe the LFTB was not beef, made ground beef that included it sound unwholesome and questioned the safety of the product. The use of ammonium hydroxide gas to kill pathogens and provide an absolutely safe product left some viewers thinking liquid household ammonia was used.

On Monday, June 5, in district court in Union County Circuit Court, Elk Point, South Dakota, ABC News will have to defend its actions. Zirnstein had earlier been dropped from the suit and in recent rulings, Diane Sawyer was also let off the hook, because she was not the reporter doing the research on the story.

Which leaves Avila squarely on the hook for, from the industry and BPIs standpoint, making up a story were there was none. In fact, in the intervening five years, a new term has succeeded the terms that would have been used in earlier times, like "yellow journalism" or "muckraking" to "hype" or "exaggeration." In a new era, when mass media's errors have been more plainly exposed, the term "fake news" has been coined to characterize the media's sometime efforts to create news where news does not exist.

But Avila's mischaracterization of the process and the resulting meat product led Diane Sawyer to express a distaste for the product that, repeated over 11 nights, made the pejorative term for the meat product a household word. In days and weeks, the product that had added extra lean beef to much of the ground beef in the U.S. was dropped by retail and restaurant chains nationwide. BPI was forced to close plant after plant and lay off hundreds of employees.

Never faced with such a crisis in such a sudden manner, especially in the newly dawning social media age, the industry did not quite know how to respond. Some users defended the product, as recovering lean beef that would otherwise not have been suitable for human consumption, adding lean when the public was looking for leaner and leaner ground beef in a time of short supply. The additions to the recovery process that would, in effect, sanitize the product using a burst of ammonium hydroxide gas was icing on the cake for an industry sensitive to the need to eliminate E. coli and other harmful pathogens.

Others didn't handle it so well. Wendy's ran an ad trying to take advantage of a bad situation and so horribly worded, we haven't darkened their doorway but once by force for five years.

Most lawsuits of this type against major media outlets never get this far. ABC News immediately filed to get the original suit transferred to federal court. After consideration, the federal court remanded the case back to the district (state) court, making South Dakota's law prohibiting disparagement of food products and the court's rural location near BPI's headquarters favorable to the plaintiff. The South Dakota law also allows for treble damages. With the easily demonstrable losses BPI suffered (they're claiming $1.9 billion) and the multiplication factor, the case could be worth $5.7 billion.

After a Feb. 8 hearing, Judge Cheryl Gering ruled Sawyer too far removed from the reporters research function to be liable for defamation but that ABC News and Avila would have to stand trial. Although she was ruling on procedure, Gering outlined very clearly what was possible at trial.

"A jury could determine that there is clear and convincing evidence that ABC Broadcasting and Mr. Avila were reckless, that defendants had obvious reason to doubt the veracity of informants, and that they engaged in purposeful avoidance of the truth," she said, according to Reuters.

She also said a jury could find the network was pursuing "a negative spin" on the story before conducting any research and that Mr. Avila had an anti-meat industry agenda, according to Morningstar.com.

ABC's lawyers claim decades of First Amendment law back its defense -- its right to report truthfully on a newsworthy subject, what is in the nation's food supply. Every broadcast said the meat product was safe, Morningstar added.

Of course, what ABC's lawyers are leaving out, is that while they were including a safety disclaimer in every broadcast, most of the rest of the broadcast was not truthful reporting, but falsities and misleading implications.



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