By P.J. Huffstutter
CHICAGO (Reuters) - ABC Broadcasting has lost a last-ditch bid before South Dakota’s highest court to avoid a trial in a beef producer’s $5.7 billion defamation case over reports about a product that critics call "pink slime."
The order signed on Monday by state Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson denied ABC’s petition to appeal a recent ruling letting plaintiff Beef Products Inc (BPI) take its case to a jury.
In February, Judge Cheryle Gering of the Union County Circuit Court in Elk Point, South Dakota, said ABC, a unit of Walt Disney Co, and its reporter Jim Avila must defend against claims that they damaged BPI by referring in a series of reports to BPI’s “lean finely textured beef” product as "pink slime."
Gering did not rule on the case's merits, nor did the Supreme Court.
ABC declined on Wednesday to comment while BPI said in a statement it looked forward to holding the defendants accountable.
The case is scheduled to go to trial on June 5 and could last eight weeks.
Lean, finely textured beef is made from beef chunks, including trimmings and exposed to tiny bursts of ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria.
At the time of the ABC News broadcasts, few Americans realized the product was a mainstay of fast-food burgers, school lunch tacos and homemade meatloaf.
BPI said ABC's reports in March and April 2012 implied that the South Dakota-based company's product was not safe, not nutritious and not even meat.
The network has called BPI's lawsuit an attempt to chill media coverage of the industry and inhibit free speech.
BPI has claimed up to $1.9 billion of damages, which could be tripled to $5.7 billion under South Dakota's Agricultural Food Products Disparagement Act.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has called BPI's product safe. But some retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc, stopped selling ground beef containing it after the ABC reports.
Several other defendants were previously dismissed from the case, including a former Agriculture Department microbiologist said to have coined the term "pink slime" in a 2002 email.
The case is Beef Products Inc et al v. American Broadcasting Cos et al, First Judicial Circuit Court of South Dakota, Union County, No. 12-292.
(Reporting by P.J. Huffstutter; Editing by Jonathan Stempel in New York and Bill Trott)