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ABC published a list of major grocery stores that stopped selling the product, pressuring others to follow suit by placing them on a “black list,” he said.

BPI will have to prove the network intended to cause harm for the defamation lawsuit to succeed, said Patrick Garry, a media law expert at the University of South Dakota School of Law.

“The media _ regardless of your opinion of them _ don’t usually print something that they know to be false,” Garry said. “It may be negligent, but usually there’s a malice requirement as well.”

Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who said he’s representing Zirnstein and Custer, said his clients were considering a counter-claim against BPI.

“Our view is that the lawsuit against them, especially as public employees doing their job for food inspection, is completely bogus, without merit and frivolous,” Marler said.

Critics worry about how the meat is processed. Bits of beef are heated and treated with a small amount of ammonia to kill bacteria, a practice that has been used for decades and meets federal food safety standards. Webb said that ABC ignored that information, instead giving the impression “that it’s some type of chemical product … some kind of repulsive, horrible, vile substance that got put into ground beef and hidden from consumers.”

The name “pink slime” gained traction after The New York Times quoted Zirnstein in a 2009 article on the safety of meat processing methods. In the following years, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver began railing against it. McDonald’s Corp. and other fast food companies stopped using the product, and major supermarket chains vowed to stop selling beef containing the low-cost product. An online petition calling for it to be banned from school menus, attracting hundreds of thousands of supporters.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has said the vast majority of states participating in its National School Lunch Program have opted to order ground beef that doesn’t contain the product. Only three _ Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota _ chose to order beef that may contain it.

The uproar prompted Beef Products to suspend operations at plants in Amarillo, Texas; Garden City, Kan.; and Waterloo, Iowa. Beef Products‘ plants in Iowa and Kansas each produced about 350,000 pounds of lean, finely textured beef per day, while the one in Texas produced about 200,000 pounds a day.

The company has won support from the governors of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas and South Dakota. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has also defended the product, saying the federal government wouldn’t allow the product if it was unsafe.

The company has launched its own public relations offensive, including a website _ www.beefisbeef.com_ to advocate for the product.

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Schulte reported from Lincoln, Neb. Associated Press writer Candice Choi in New York contributed to this report.