ABC Takes a Pro- E-Coli Position in Hit Job on Meat Industry

TV news loves a health scare. Deadly Tylenol. Killer tomatoes. Mad Cow Disease. Alar in apples. And lots more. Sometimes, as with Tylenol, they are legit. Others like Alar, entirely bogus. Every time, the template is the same. Someone gets sick and the ravenous media tear at the company or industry for not being safe.

But ABC News has turned that idea on its head in its usual quest for tabloid headlines. It’s going after a company for making a safe product that we’ve all been eating for years. ABC and reporter Jim Avila has decided to declare open war on … beef. So far, they’re winning. In a series of 10 stories in just about two weeks, ABC has so demonized a company and its products that Safeway, SUPERVALU and Food Lion just stopped buying it.

The meat, often called lean finely textured beef, is made up of beef that is just harder to get at, so the meat isn’t lost. It’s treated to get rid of the fat and included with the rest of the ground beef. The USDA declares it healthy, but it is less expensive. As an added bonus, it is treated tiny amounts of ammonium hydroxide to make it safer to eat. But network broadcasts and activist videos act as if this treatment is somehow bad. This is beyond simple irresponsibility. ABC is out to destroy a family owned business to push the agenda of a couple of “whistleblowers” who don’t like the company’s beef, which one loony activist, who ABC has counted on heavily, has dubbed “pink slime.”

That, editors will tell you, is headline material. Slimy journalists might add that it’s the path to getting awards – facts be damned. ABC has covered the story almost round the clock in recent weeks with stories on “World News with Diane Sawyer” and “Good Morning America.” Print and web outlets have reported the story, but Avila has been the face of the anti-beef attack, Competitors at NBC did only two stories and CBS just one. ABC hyped its reports by using the term “pink slime” 52 times in just a two-week span (making it harder than usual not to associate Avila’s activist reporting with the word “slime.”)

In his March 22 victory lap report about the stores pulling the beef, Avila and anchor Diane Sawyer kept calling the meat “pink slime” like a 4-year-old who has just learned a dirty word. In all, they said it 10 times, while the term itself cropped up on the screen several more.

Beef Products Inc., which makes the beef, is trying to prevent deadly E. coli bacteria. While a couple of the stories mentioned the goal to “kill germs” or “kill bacteria,” neither of those phrasings sound especially scary. E. coli is so terrifying that the Centers for Disease Control gives it a separate page on its website, saying some forms can “cause diarrhea, while others cause urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, and other illnesses.”

It’s a reality that mom Nancy Donley knows all too well. She lost her only son to the disease when he ate “contaminated ground beef back in 1993 when he was only 6 years old.” Donley wrote recently to defend the company against ABC’s attacks, saying the firm’s “use of ammonia hydroxide in minute amounts during processing improves the safety of the product and is routinely used throughout the food industry.”

It’s also a reality even ABC journalists know well. When Topps Meat Co. recalled more than 21 million pounds of meat in 2007, it sent the company into bankruptcy. The cause? E. coli. ABC mentioned the story eight times including one Sept. 30, 2007, piece that highlighted the danger.

ABC’s Andrea Canning interviewed one young victim of the bacteria. “Fifteen-year-old Samantha Safranek says it was a race against time to figure out what was causing her intense stomach cramps and dehydration. The USDA concluded it was E. coli from a hamburger patty that led to her near fatal kidney failure.” Safranek explained: “It almost cost my life, and I was just scared the whole time, just thinking, if I was even going to make it. And I didn't want a silly burger just to kill me.”

That company is out of business. Beef Products, Inc., that Avila and ABC are attacking is the exact opposite. The International Association for Food Protection gave its singularly best award – called the Black Pearl Award, to the company just five years ago. Only one firm each year gets that award.

But then again this is ABC, which has its own awful record of covering food stories. Veteran TV watchers will remember ABC’s dose of similar slimy food ethics when its reporters cooperated with unions to go undercover at Food Lion. That case became a classic example of out-of-control TV journalists in quest for awards, not professionalism. ABC initially lost in court but won on appeal, though it still earned a much-deserved black eye in the process.

So you know to be suspicious when ABC claimed “USDA officials with links to the beef industry labeled pink slime meat.” Actually, USDA officials labeled meat as meat. One loony USDA guy who no longer works there gave it the headline-grabbing name of “pink slime” and Avila and ABC have used it to slime the company repeatedly.

Sometimes ABC had the honesty to call it “so-called pink slime,” but typically they treated it like the meat was actually called that term. Even when Avila was giving the few words to the company side, he still called it “pink slime.” “And the American Meat Institute insists pink slime is not an additive, so no label is necessary.” Most of the stories didn’t mention the company’s argument. You know, the basics of journalism, like the fact that product is meat, not some foreign substance.

ABC’s reports were studded with anti-beef people including Kit Foshee, a former BPI employee who was quoted saying, “It’s not what the typical layperson would consider meat.” What ABC didn’t tell viewers is that BPI blasted him. “Mr. Foshee has been openly hostile to BPI ever since his repeated attempts at ‘legal extortion’ (Foshee’s own words) failed over a decade ago.” Most journalists would consider that adversarial relationship important to note.

ABC’s own Dr. Richard Besser took a strong anti-red meat position in one story. “You can eat red meat. I wouldn’t eat more than two servings per week. And when we’re talking servings, in this study, a serving was a three ounces. So that’s about the size of a deck of cards.” When’s the last time someone dealt you just six ounces of red meat in a week – or in one sitting. The ABC food police think they know better than you what you should eat and how much.

But viewers had to slice through that propaganda to get to where ABC is going – to get attention. According to David Muir of ABC, the network’s “reporting on pink slime” has “sparked a grassroots movement.” Diane Sawyer crowed “Jim’s story prompted a public outcry.”

That’s always what the news outlets are looking for. Major media have attacked a long list of industries in recent years – coal, oil, guns, Wall Street, banks and more. Each time, they savage an industry, they do it for ratings, never caring what damage they do to a company, shareholders or employees who might soon be looking for work.

In ABC’s case, it’s clear they care more about headlines than health, never even mentioning the dangers of E. coli that the company, and industry, both fight against. What’s next for ABC and Avila? A war on companies that fight ebola?

Dan Gainor is the Boone Pickens Fellow and the Media Research Center’s Vice President for Business and Culture. His column appears each week on The Fox Forum. He can also be contacted on Facebook and Twitter as dangainor.