The broad outlines of what happened are well known: To verify reports from seventy different sources of unsanitary practices at Food Lion supermarkets, producers for the ABC newsmagazine Prime Time Live took jobs as supermarket workers and went to work with tiny concealed cameras turned on. The resulting broadcast aired November 5, 1992, replete with gross but powerful footage of employees in such questionable acts as redating expired meats and poultry, trimming pork with spoiled edges to repackage for longer sale, marinating chicken in water and liquid that hadn’t been changed for days, and slicing slimy turkey and coating it in barbecue sauce to resell as a gourmet special.
The broadcast had immediate and deleterious impact on the business prospects of what then was the nation’s fastest-growing supermarket chain. The company’s stock price plummeted; a shareholder filed suit. Unrelated adverse publicity came down from a federal Labor Department case on allegations of child labor and overtime violations at the stores. By Christmas, the company had slowed expansion plans and two weeks after that announced it would be closing eighty-eight stores. The broadcast resulted in a protracted lawsuit against ABC -- not for libel, but for what it alleged were wrongs committed during the newsgathering process—fraud, trespass, unfair trade practices, and breach of the duty of loyalty. The legal case waged on for seven long years. In the end, ABC lost on tresspass and breach of duty of loyalty, but it won in another sense. From an initial damage award of $5.5 million—with its potentially chilling effect on other media companies contemplating aggressive reporting of this nature—the amount was progressively decreased, first to $315,000 in punitive damages plus a small compensatory amount, then ultimately down to a symbolic penalty of a dollar on each of the two charges. Apart from the legal matters, the Food Lion investigation did earn journalistic recognition and was honored by a 1992 IRE Award for Investigative Journalism.
The reporting was intended for these media types: