Ex-BPI Employee Dismisses “Pink Slime” Lawsuit Against Me, ABC and Jamie Oliver

Back in December I told you that Bruce Smith, a former environmental health and safety officer at Beef Products Inc., filed a pro se lawsuit in Nebraska state court against me, ABC News, Jim Avila, Diane Sawyer and Jamie Oliver.   In his complaint, Mr. Smith claimed to have suffered the negligent infliction of emotional distress due to the loss of his job at BPI last May, a job loss which he alleged arose out the controversy over lean, finely textured beef (more popularly known as “pink slime”).

The case was subsequently removed by the defendants to federal court and about three weeks ago it was voluntarily dismissed by Mr. Smith.  To my knowledge, Mr. Smith has made no public comment regarding his dismissal of the case.

A second lawsuit arising out of the “pink slime” controversy continues, however.  That case, filed by BPI against ABC News, Jim Avila, Diane Sawyer, a former BPI employee and two former USDA microbiologists, seeks $1.2 billion in damages.  I’ll continue to provide updates on the BPI litigation as warranted.

I’d like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the many people who offered assistance and support while the Smith litigation was pending against me, with special thanks to attorney Kenneth White of the Popehat blog and to the Online Media Legal Network at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

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Ex-BPI Employee Sues Me, Jamie Oliver and ABC News Over LFTB Controversy

Yesterday I learned that Bruce Smith, a former environmental health and safety officer at Beef Products Inc., has filed a pro se lawsuit in Nebraska state court relating to last spring’s controversy over BPI’s lean, finely textured beef product.  I’m one of the named defendants, along with ABC News, Jim Avila, Diane Sawyer and Jamie Oliver.  I have not been served with the suit.

In his complaint, Mr. Smith claims to have suffered the negligent infliction of emotional distress due to the loss of his job at BPI last May.  Mr. Smith has also self-published a book entitled Pink Slime Ate My Job, the sale of which he appears to be promoting in connection with his lawsuit.

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.  I will vigorously defend my right, and the rights of all of us, to speak out on matters of public importance and to petition the federal government, as I did through Change.org, to change any policy with which we disagree.

My sincere thanks to all of you who’ve already expressed support and/or extended offers of assistance as I prepare to defend myself against this lawsuit.  I’ll keep you posted regarding further developments as warranted.

Before signing off, a reminder that the stringent comments policy I published last spring remains in effect.  Anyone who feels the need to include personal attacks, profanity or anti-semitic sentiments in their responses to this or any other post will not see their comment appear in this forum.  Moreover, all future comments from any sender violating this policy will go directly to my spam filter and I will not see them for moderation.

[Ed. Update: As of 12/19/12, this blog’s comments policy has been updated to indicate that I will summarily block any “commenters using aliases and multiple email addresses to appear to be more than one reader. I will use my reasonable judgment, based on IP addresses and other information, to determine if a commenter is engaging in this practice.”]

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My Response to Beef Industry Defenses of “Pink Slime”

Lunch Tray readers following the astonishing progress of the Change.org petition launched here last week to get “Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings” (BLBT) out of school food (175,000  at present count) will hardly be surprised that the beef industry has started to come out swinging.  PR reps of the American Meat Institute, employees of Beef Products Inc. (the inventor of BLBT) and others with ties to the beef industry are now all over Twitter defending so-called “pink slime” with the hashtag #pinkslimeisamyth.

Well, in point of fact, the undisclosed presence of ammonia-hydroxide-treated bovine connective tissues in 70% of the nation’s ground beef  is hardly a “myth.”  But rather than responding under Twitter’s 140 character constraint, I’d like to address here a few of the main arguments currently being advanced by industry in defense of BLBT.

BLBT Is Nothing But Lean, Nutritious Beef

Photo of ground beef processing.

Meat industry lobbyists maintain that BLBT is nothing more than “lean, nutritious” beef, but it’s well worth noting that two former microbiologists at USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service – now federal whistleblowers – have vociferously protested the agency’s controversial decision to classify BLBT as “meat.”  In a 2002 email to colleagues, one of these scientists wrote: “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.”  That revelation ought to be at least some cause for consumer concern.

BLBT Is Perfectly Safe to Eat

Even BPI acknowledges that the types of slaughterhouse waste used to make BLBT– fatty scraps and bits of connective tissue left over from beef processing – is more susceptible to foodborne pathogens than regular cuts of meat.  These bits and pieces tend to come from the outermost part of the animal and thus are more likely to be contaminated with excrement smeared on the animal’s hide.  According to a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2009 New York Times exposé, federal testing between 2005-2009 found that ground beef containing BLBT was four times more likely to contain salmonella than regular ground meat.

In fairness, BPI has improved its safety protocols and now leads the industry in testing for not just one but the so-called “Big Six” strains of E. coli, and it also vows to hold back any batch testing positive for these pathogens.  But it’s important to remember that there are other deadly foodborne pathogens besides the Big Six.  Last year’s E. coli outbreak in Germany, which left 45 dead and 3,785 sickened, was caused by a previously unknown strain of the bacteria, demonstrating that microbiologists often identify new pathogens only after a deadly outbreak.  And should an outbreak occur, children are more vulnerable than adults to suffering serious harm, or even death.

Using Every Bit of the Cow is “Sustainable”

The meat industry argues that we ought to love pink slime because it “absolutely is the right thing” to use every available scrap on a cow carcass. But we were already honoring the noble ideal of “nose-to-tail” butchering by putting these scraps to use in the past for pet food or rendering into cooking oil.  Was there any reason to shift their use to human consumption, beyond profit motive?  (According to ABC News, BPI has made “hundreds of millions of dollars” on the sale of pink slime; a source quoted in the Times article says BPI’s founder and owner has “amassed a tidy fortune” from it.)

BLBT Helps Feed a Hungry World

BPI and the meat industry answer that last question by arguing that BLBT helps “feed America and the world” by stretching the available supply of beef products.  But if our country is undertaking a wholesale “stretching” of the food supply with ammonia-treated bovine connective tissue, shouldn’t individual consumers have the right to opt out?  Just as some people relish the idea of a beef tongue sandwich and others are repelled at the notion, many consumers want to avoid pink slime for reasons both rational and irrational.  Yet the federal government’s decisions — at BPI’s behest — to classify BLBT as “beef” so that it need not be labeled, and to treat ammonia hydroxide as an undisclosed processing agent, has utterly stripped consumers of the right to know exactly what they are eating and feeding their families.

BLBT Actually Helps America’s School Children

In a new post published on The Daily this morning, BPI spokesman Rich Jochum asserts that the presence of BLBT in school beef actually helps our children because it “1) improves the nutritional profile, 2) increases the safety of the products and 3) meets the budget parameters that allow the school lunch program to feed kids nationwide every day.”

Let me address these notions in a slightly different order.  When BPI argues that use of BLBT “increases the safety of products” it seems to be coming dangerously close to making the claim that by mixing the ammonia-hydroxide-treated substance into regular ground beef, its mere presence reduces pathogens in the rest of the product.  This is precisely how BPI first marketed BLBT when it was introduced in 2001, but, as well detailed in the aforementioned Times exposé, this food safety claim has been thoroughly discredited.

Second, when BPI says use of BLBT increases the nutritional profile of school food, I can only assume that the company is referring to the lower fat content of ground beef mixed with BLBT.  But of course another way of achieving the same result would be to add higher quality lean beef to the mixture, rather than pink slime.  This would of course be more costly, however, which leads to the third defense of pink slime, which is that it reduces school districts’ food costs.

On this point, BPI and I are in complete agreement.  Use of BLBT shaves three cents a pound off the ground beef that contains it.  But as writer Tom Philpott wryly noted back in 2010:

Three cents off the cost of making a pound of ground beef. Under the severe fiscal austerity that school cafeteria administrators operate under, pinching those three pennies is a rational decision, even if it means subjecting children to ammonia-ridden slime that may contain pathogens.

The bottom line for me is this:  three leading fast food giants – McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell – all recently discontinued their use of BLBT.  Though they haven’t said so explicitly, it’s likely that growing consumer concern over pink slime led to their change in practice.  But while fast food customers can vote with their dollars, our nation’s school children, particularly those whose lower economic status forces them to rely on federal school meals, lack any voice in the matter.  The must passively consume whatever the federal government sees fit to feed them.

I simply do not  believe that use of BLBT is doing our best by our nation’s children.

And, so far, apparently, over 175,000 people agree with me.

 

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