ELK POINT, S.D. — A more than $1 billion defamation trial over ABC news reports on a South Dakota meat producer’s lean, finely textured beef product started Monday with attorneys giving different versions of the company’s decline.

Dakota Dunes-based Beef Products Inc. sued the television network in 2012, saying ABC’s coverage was a “disinformation campaign” that misled consumers into believing the product is unsafe, is not beef and isn’t nutritious. Critics have dubbed the product “pink slime.”

The reports emphasized that the product at the time was present in 70 percent of the ground beef sold in supermarkets, but wasn’t labeled. ABC stands by its reporting.

BPI attorney Dan Webb said the product was used in most of the country’s ground beef, but that changed after ABC’s reports, the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/2saP8pn) reported. Webb said the company saw a 75-percent reduction in demand for its products.

He said BPI was “almost put out of business by the wrongful actions” of the defendants, ABC and correspondent Jim Avila.

But ABC attorney Dane Butswinkas countered that BPI had been losing clients over concerns about the product beforehand. He said fast food companies McDonalds, Burger King and Taco Bell stopped using beef with the product before the segments debuted.

BPI must show that ABC and Avila made defamatory implications or statements, and that they either knew the statements were false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth. The company also must prove that ABC hurt BPI.

The actual damages BPI is seeking could be as high as $1.9 billion, according to a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing from Disney, which owns ABC. BPI is also seeking “treble” damages, or triple the amount, under South Dakota’s Agricultural Food Products Disparagement Act and punitive damages.

The trial in state court is scheduled to last until late July.


Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com