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The Wall Street Journal reports that a South Dakota judge has ruled that a $1.9 billion defamation lawsuit against ABC News and journalist Jim Avila can move forward, setting the stage for a trial focusing on ABC's reporting about "lean, finely textured beef," a filler found in about 70 percent of ground beef sold in supermarkets.

In the original story, which ran in 2012, ABC News reported about the existence of lean finely textured beef, made of trimmings washed with ammonia to remove pathogens, in ground beef products. The filler was labeled "pink slime,"

The ABC stories led to a number of retailers, restaurants and school districts to only buy meat without the lean finely textured beef trimmings, even though the trimmings were perfectly safe; it was the opinion of some microbiologists with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) - though not the official conclusion - that the trimmings were "salvage," not meat." In fact, it was a FSIS employee who originally came up with the "pink slime" label.

The Journal writes that the judge - while dismissing claims against then-ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer - said that a jury trial could conceivably conclude that the network was looking for a "negative spin" and that Avila had an anti-meat agenda, and therefore the case should go forward. The judge also said that Avila was “rude, agitated and hostile” in his questioning of beef execs.

Beef Products Inc. which was one of the companies affected by the story says that "it was forced to close three of its four plants and erase hundreds of jobs when consumers recoiled." However, it does not provide current production figures.

The Journal story notes that "due to a South Dakota food-libel law that triples damages against those found to have knowingly lied about the safety of a food product, ABC News could be hit with as much as $6 billion in damages."

ABC News stands by its story.
KC's View:
To be honest, I had totally forgotten about this story.

I went back and saw something I wrote back in 2012:

I suspect that the legal wranglings about this case will go on for a long time, but I'm also reasonable sure that ABC News is not going to be willing to settle it - the precedent and impact on the free press would be chilling.

Not being a lawyer, I have no idea how this will all turn out. But as a consumer and a member of the media, I have to say that I think that BPI may have only itself to blame - because in the end, its mistake was a lack of transparency, which is a real problem in today's world.

I'll stick with that.

I suppose that if BPI wins the suit, there will be a feeling that it was right all along. If so, that'll miss the more important lesson - that transparency is critical, especially in today's world.