Former Beef Products Inc. employee Bruce Smith has filed a lawsuit against Jamie Oliver; ABC News; two ABC news anchors Diane Sawyer and Jim Avila; and blogger Bettina Siegel; alleging that they “willfully” made false statements about lean finely textured beef (LFTB) that caused him and 750+ colleagues to lose their jobs.
In a civil suit filed in the district court for Dakota County in Nebraska, Smith - who was an environmental health and safety officer at BPI and as a licensed attorney is representing himself - said the defendants “engaged in negligent, willful, and reckless behavior targeted against BPI”.
This behavior, he claimed, resulted in “the temporary and permanent closure of BPI food manufacturing plants [in Texas, Kansas and Iowa], and directly caused the permanent loss of over 750 BPI employee jobs within a two month time period”.
‘Plaintiff’s job loss directly resulted from the actions of the Defendants’
Much of his 17-page civil suit focuses on celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who featured a segment on his TV show Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (broadcast on ABC) in April in which he referred to LFTB as “pink slime”, “shit,” “not fit for human consumption,” and “good for dog food.”
Smith added: ”Oliver employed the use of a clothes washing machine to inaccurately demonstrate a centrifuge separation process and then poured liquid ammonia housecleaner, with a skull and crossbones label affixed, onto the red meat product he was handling so as to recklessly, and inaccurately portray a previously approved USDA/FDA ammonium hydroxide process used by Beef Products to kill foodborne pathogens, as unhealthy and unsafe.”
Oliver then used his fame “to place pressure on American fast food company McDonald’s, and others, to immediately stop using LFTB ground beef in its retail menu food products”, said Smith.
Three plant closures, more than 750 job losses
Siegel, meanwhile, launched an online petition drive demanding the immediate removal of all ground beef containing BPI’s LFTB from the National School Lunch Program, and provided a link to a photo of what was in fact strawberry colored chicken paste, not LFTB, he said.
Following these slurs, BPI terminated Smith’s employment on May 15 “due to BPI’s loss of business and forced closure of three production plants and significant production cutbacks at the remaining facility in Dakota County, Nebraska”, he said.
“Plaintiff’s job loss directly resulted from the actions of the Defendants…to cause the removal of LFTB ground beef product from the retail grocery stores and fast food restaurants throughout the United States, and from the USDA National School Lunch Program, using traditional and social media networks and news sources as a means to an end.”
More than 250,000 people signed Siegel’s petition, prompting USDA to give school districts the choice of whether or not to include LFTB-supplemented beef in their menus.
Several leading retailers including Safeway, Supervalu, Kroger and Food Lion also announced plans to drop ground beef containing LFTB.
BPI has already sued ABC News, Sawyer and Avila for defamation over its coverage of the product, a suit ABC News says it will “vigorously contest”. (Click here for details.)
Smith is seeking $70,000 in damages and a jury trial
Smith, who is seeking $70,000 in damages for “extreme emotional distress”, accuses the defendants of "intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, defamation, common law product disparagement, and tortious interference".
An ABC News spokesman told FoodNavigator-USA: “We have no comment", while Jamie Oliver has yet to comment.
However, writing in her blog thelunchtray.com , Bettina Siegel defended her rights to free speech, adding: “For the time being, I’ll have no further comment except to say that I’m confident the First Amendment protects the rights of all Americans, including bloggers like myself, against meritless attempts at censorship like this one.”
What is lean finely textured beef?
LFTB is added to some beef burgers and other ground beef products to increase the percentage of lean beef, say producers.
ABC News’ coverage suggested that the product was unsafe and unhealthy, said Smith, when it is in fact simply beef that has been separated from fat and then treated with ammonia to kill pathogens in an USDA-approved process.
The phrase ‘pink slime’ - allegedly first coined by an USDA microbiologist - began to spread after it was cited in a 2009 article by The New York Times, and then gained momentum after Jamie Oliver began using it.
Cargill: The issue is perception, not facts or science
While labeling LFTB is not mandatory because it is just beef, several voluntary label options are under discussion in order to help firms "determine how best to re-introduce FTB in their ground beef”, fellow FTB maker Cargill told us in September.
Director of communications Michael Martin said: “The issue is perception, not facts or science, since FTB is 100% beef, 95%+ lean, reduces waste, increases available lean beef, keeps price down and has been consumed for 20 years without issue - until last March.”