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Judge rules secret behind US 'pink slime' must remain under wraps

Published time: April 11, 2013 03:23
Screenshot from YouTube user TheYoungTurks

Screenshot from YouTube user TheYoungTurks

You’re not likely to have heard of Beef Products Inc. before, but the leading maker of “lean finely textured beef” - or what is now referred to as “pink slime” - was successful today in blocking the release of its processing techniques to prying eyes.

As Reuters recently reported, it was only a year ago that BPI operated four thriving plants, employed over 1,300 people and was only expanding. Then, last March, the hammer fell when ABC News began a series of broadcasts anchored by Diane Sawyer shedding light on the ubiquitous use of "lean finely textured beef" (LFTB) in fast food restaurants, school cafeterias and even homemade meals.

Though the LFTB product that led the South Dakota company to such high profits is perfectly legal to use, according to BPI’s subsequent lawsuit against ABC the use of the not-unfitting term “pink slime” put off consumers and caused its revenues to plummet from over $650 million to $130 million per year.

In its reporting, ABC was intent on disclosing the production details behind LFTB which, although being low-fat, was subjected to treatment with ammonia and other noxious chemicals to kill E. coli bacteria and make it safe for consumption. Though the product had been approved for public consumption beginning in 2001, ABC’s reporting reached a largely unaware mainstream audience.

Regardless of whether BPI was subjected to undue defamation by the news broadcasts, the public backlash and controversy over the product led to its discontinued use by various companies.

But on Wednesday, BPI was successful in protecting information regarding the process by which the so-called pink slime is made.

The company had filed legal action in 2010 when a Seattle law firm, and later The New York Times, attempted to obtain food safety research conducted by a professor at Iowa State University who later became a consultant for the company.

Though the ruling is sure to upset food safety advocacy groups, which have been vocal in their bid to rid food of the processed product, District Judge Dale Ruigh did not seem to weigh potential consumer concerns heavily in his decision. Rather, Ruigh found that BPI should be shielded from an “extraordinarily competitive” environment, in which competitors are hot on the trail of its patented processes in the production of the 'beef' product.

In addition, the ruling addressed the potential impact to Iowa State laboratories, who do business with companies that might head elsewhere for testing if they suspected results would be made public. Exactly how any concerns over consumer safety were to be weighed with the school’s business interests remained unclear, though in this case Judge Ruigh made that call for all involved.

While for the moment the litigation battle over pink slime processing secrets is over, and no appeals are expected, it is unlikely to change the public’s perception of BPI’s now struggling product. As for whether the company’s lawsuit against ABC News is successful remains to be seen, though BPI has been hard at work trying to win back customers following the fallout of the reports on its cash 'cow.'

According to Reuters, the Midwestern grocery chain Hy-Vee, which discontinued sales of LFTB following the media uproar, soon began selling it again once customers began demanding it back.