From Jamie Oliver to ABC: Pink Slime Defamation Lawsuit will Go Forward

Posted on 28 Mar 2014 15:29

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I'll admit, right off the bat, that I have a big problem with Jamie Oliver. The reason for this is that he relies on over-wrought and sensationalist claims and pretty much none of them are based on fact. For instance, he claims that we are killing our children and today's children will live a ten year shorter lifespan than their parents. Is this true? Not at all. He just made it up. First of all, not only are obesity levels in children NOT rising1 which is his big cause, but there is absolutely no reason to believe that our kids are less healthy than we were as kids. They will most likely live a longer and healthier lifetime than we will.

Although McDonald's was a primary target of Oliver's wrath (how original), in his typical naivete he seems to think that school lunches are a primary cause of America's obesity problem. Now, school lunch programs are a mess all over the country, especially in the cities, but the idea that spending a lot more money on school lunches will fix the problem of obesity in America is asinine. Many school lunches may seem more like fast food, but that doesn't mean they will, of themselves, make your child obese! As well,for many children in America, the school lunch is the only solid meal they get.

As part of his attack on McDonald's, as well as school lunches and the food industry in general, Jamie reacted to what he and others call "pink slime." Summaries of his statements are all over the internet, and there is a bit of truth in them, mixed with a liberal helping of untruth.

McDonald's, for instance, uses white chicken meat in their nuggets and has been since 2003. It is probably mechanically separated, sure, but that means that a mechanical process is used to get at all the bits of meat that would otherwise be left on the bone. They do not use "remains" nor would this be legal, and I'm pretty sure Jamie Oliver knows that as he did a video on mechanical separation.

The description of "pink slime" is also wrong. So-called pink slime comes from "boneless lean beef trimming." It is used to be called "finely textured lean beef trimming." According to the American Meat Institute, this is actually a different product, which uses citric acid instead of ammonia hydroxide gas. Both products are, however, made in similar ways.

Suppose you have a roast or a rack of ribs, or any cut of beef and you trim a lot of the fat (which would have been subcutaneous fat). Well that fat has some meat in it as well but you have to sacrifice it…there is no practical way to get it out of the fat. BLBT is a way of separating out the meat from these fat trimmings, which are rendered with low temperature and then centrifuged to separate the meat bits. The recovered meat may still contain about 7 to 17% fat although it is possible to produce it with less fat with a modified process. The beef is exposed to a small amount of ammonium hydroxide gas to raise the Ph and kill bacteria, and squeezed out through small tubes.

I'm pretty sure that McDonald's announced that they would stop using BLBT in 2012 at the same time that Burger King and Taco Bell did. But they claim they had already stopped using it since August of 2011. Now, I'm glad they don't use BLBT any more, simply because you expect a burger that you pay for to have "real" ground beef, not the bottom of the barrel product. If I pay the cheapest price, I can expect to get the cheapest product. However, that is more an issue of getting what you expect as a consumer, rather than an issue of health and safety. Nutritionally, there is nothing wrong with BLBT. I'm sure many of my readers will disagree with this, but the scientific facts are on my side, and scientific facts are not something Oliver possesses in abundance.

For instance, Oliver's statements relating meat scraps to inedible dog food is a bit out there. The meat in the scraps is completely edible and there is no nutritional difference between it and other meat. The product itself is not going to produce the tastiest hamburger, of course, or at least not the juiciest or most texturally pleasing one. But, of course, it is not used as a stand-alone product but mixed with ground beef, and no more than 15% of the product can be used, and the labels must state its use. Of course, if the ground beef that a restaurant uses contains BLBT, you will have no way of knowing.

The ammonia is another issue, which he mischaracterizes, but if he ever tried to pretend that there was something inherently inedible about the beef, he was completely exaggerating. There is no process which can turn an inedible animal product into an edible one! Let me repeat that in bold to bring it home: There is no process which can turn an inedible animal product into an edible one!

If a butcher wasted a bunch of meat instead of trying their best to use as much of the cow as possible, people would say they were wasteful. But if industry tries to do the same thing in a more efficient manner, people are grossed out. People all over the world eat parts of the cow that Oliver would call "only fit for dogs."

I'd like to point out that in his video, Jamie Oliver actually admitted that he didn't have a clue as to how the meat was produced and said "this is how I imagine the process to be.." He also was willing to create the unwarranted association in people's minds that the ammonia was the same as you used in your house to clean things: As if the stuff was just poured into the chicken (or beef). Instead of being a sensationalist, he could do with some actual research.

As for the ammonia, when you digest protein, your body produces a little bit of ammonia hydroxide, which is the same gas that is used in the BLBT. This turns into urea which is excreted. There is actually no evidence whatsoever that the tiny amounts of the substance imparted to the meat are of any health concern at all. I am not defending the product, or urging you to accept a burger made with BLBT rather than a good quality ground beef of some kind. I am simply rebutting some of Oliver's BS claims that are not based on any true knowledge or research on his part. By his standards, as Rob Lyons pointed out in an article in the Huffington Post2, he should be completely against sausage, a product that has been around for centuries as a way of using more of the animal and preserving the meat.

However, it was not Jamie Oliver who coined the term pink slime. Instead, it was coined in 2002 by a USDA FSIS microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein in an internal e-mail. He warned that the ammonia should be mentioned on the labels of packaged ground beef if the beef trimmings are added to them, saying "I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling." His concerns, it turns out, were related to his perception that the product contained connective tissue, making it, in his opinion, not nutritionally equivalent to ground beef. There is no evidence that BLBT contains connective tissue, and it certainly it is not made from connective tissue, per se, although one writer has claimed to have compared ground beef burgers with burgers made from BLBT and found them to tastes and smell the same, but stating that the beef trimming burgers were less juicy and highly mealy with bits of cartilage-like matter. This may be because there is more connective tissue in the product, or simply a reaction to the texture, or due to the expectations and pre-planted belief that the product would contain cartilage. Regular ground beef, to some extent, will contain "gristle," but it is possible that this gristle is more detectable in a more finely ground product. Be that as it may, I would not want to be sold a burger made only with beef trimmings, and certainly if I was dining in a premium burger joint I would be very unhappy with such an ingredient. However, my concern is not safety, but getting what I pay for!

Still, the term didn't really enter the public arena until 2009, probably due to its use in a New York Times article. Jamie Oliver started using the term pink slime in 2011, on an episode of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution (he may have used it previously) aired on April 12. In the show, Oliver criticizes the use of pink slime in school lunches, and the food supply in general, and is shown pouring liquified ammonia on beef trimmings. Perhaps the grossest bit of intellectual dishonesty, if not simply plain foolishness, that Oliver displayed was the claim that ordinary household ammonia was used to make the product. The company, BPI (see below) and the American Meat Institute released a YouTube video with Dr. Gary Acuff of Texas A&M university, who rebutted some of Oliver's claims. The American Meat Institute runs a website called "MeatMythCrushers," which is the user you see associated with the video, below.

Video Rebuttal to Jamie Oliver's Pink Slime Accusations by Gary Acuff of Texas A&M (Commissioned by BPI and the American Meat Institute.

BPI Defamation Lawsuit Against ABC Concerning Pink Slime

ABC is not the only one being sued. After BPI filed suit against ABC and others, Jamie Oliver himself was the subject of a suit when his allegations caused a worker in a plant that processed BLBT to lose his job. This is because Oliver's ridiculous and irresponsible statements have helped pave the way for many plants to shut down, and many workers to lose their jobs. The suit happened in 2012 when Jamie Oliver, together with ABC, Dianne Sawyer, Jim Avila, and a food blogger named Bettina Siegel was sued by Bruce Smith, who was one of the over 700 people laid off by Beef Product Inc. Smith claimed that the use of the term "pink slime" which basically amounted to a slur against the product, caused him to lose his job. He was BPI's senior counsel and director of Environmental, Health, and Safety. He filed the the civil suit in Dakota County District Court in Nebraska, and sought $70,000 in damages, stating "The company 'and its employees were unfairly and unnecessarily maligned and accused of producing a food product that did not exist, a product that critics unfairly labeled "pink slime",' he said in a statement." Ten other defendants were also included, but unnamed. Smith subsequently dismissed the lawsuit, for unknown reasons.

When ABC took up Oliver's banner (I do not think they would have reported on this without Oliver having created a public sensation) and covered the "pink slime" issue, they singled out one particular producer, Beef Products Inc.. ABC's coverage caused such a negative public perception of the product that three BPI plants were shut down, resulting in the layoff of 700 workers. BPI is suing ABC for $1.2 in damages, saying that ABC's coverage mislead consumers into thinking the product is unsafe.

ABC's attorneys claimed that all of of the ABC broadcasts concerning the product stated that the USDA had deemed the product to be safe (the USDA consulted with the FDA on the ammonia hydroxide process) and that its calling the product "pink slime" was not "incorrect." They also compared the product to all ground beef, which, as they claim is pink and has a slimy texture. BPI says that these statements concerning the USDA's position were coupled with negative statements calling the product "filler" and "not meat." BPI also claims that ABC implied that the USDA was not a credible source because the agency had went against the recommendation of scientists in approving the beef product for use. This is in regards to USDA FSIS microbiologists Carl Custer and Gerald Zirnstein's argument against the approval of the product for human consumption, saying that it was "not meat" and was actually "salvage." They wanted the USDA to seek independent verification of its safety, but the agency overruled them.

Despite ABC's effort to prove there was no defamation and have Judge Cheryle Gering, in Elk Point, South Dakota dismiss all 27 counts, she only dismissed five of them, and ordered the trial to go forward on the 22 remaining counts. It is still possible that the five dismissed counts, which deal with "disparagement for false implications" could be considered, because they relate to count 26 which deals with "statutory product disparagement," covered under South Dakota common law.

In June, ABC had also sought to have the case considered in the U.S district court in Sioux Falls, but a federal judge ordered the case back to the state circuit court in Elk Point. Eric Conolly, the attorney for BPI, said that the company is pleased with the ruling and "We look forward to stating discovery and ultimately presenting our case to a jury."

Besides ABC, others are also named in the suit, including anchor Diane Sawyer; and ABC correspondents Jim Avila and David Kerley. As well, the aforementioned Gerald Zirnstein, the former USDA scientist who originally named the product pink slime, is named, along with Carl Custer. Kit Foshee, a former BPI quality assurance manager, who was interviewed by ABC for their broadcast, is also named.

1. Judge Won't Dismiss 'pink Slime' Defamation Suit." Associated Press. N.p., 27 Mar. 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
2. Lyons, Rob. "The Truth About Jamie Oliver's 'Pink Slime'" The Huffington Post UK. N.p., 30 Jan. 2012. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
3. "Pink Slime." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Mar. 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
4. Jensen, Werner K., Carrick Devine, and Michael Dikeman. Encyclopedia of Meat Sciences. Oxford: Academic, 2004.
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