What do you call a mash of beef trimmings that have been chopped and then spun in a centrifuge to remove the fatty bits and gristle? According to the government and to the company that invented the process, you call it lean finely textured beef. But to the natural-food crusaders who would have the stuff removed from the nation's hamburgers and tacos, the protein-rich product goes by another, more disturbing name: Pink slime.

The story of this activist rebranding—from lean finely textured beef to pink slime—reveals just how much these labels matter. It was the latter phrase that, for example, birthed the great ground-beef scare of 2012. In early March, journalists at both the Daily and at ABC began reporting on a burger panic: Lax rules from the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed producers to fill their ground-beef packs with a slimy, noxious byproduct—a mush the reporters called unsanitary and without much value as a food. Coverage linked back to a New York Times story from 2009 in which the words pink slime had appeared in public for the first time in a quote from an email written by a USDA microbiologist who was frustrated at a decision to leave the additive off labels for ground meat.

The slimy terror spread in the weeks that followed. Less than a month after ABC's initial reports, almost a quarter million people had signed a petition to get pink slime out of public school cafeterias. Supermarket chains stopped selling burger meat that contained it—all because of a shift from four matter-of-fact words to two visceral ones.

And now that rebranding has become the basis for a 263-page lawsuit. Last month, Beef Products Inc., the first and principal producer of lean/pink/textured/slimy beef, filed a defamation claim against ABC (along with that microbiologist and a former USDA inspector) in a South Dakota court. The company says the network carried out a malicious and dishonest campaign to discredit its ground-beef additive and that this work had grievous consequences. When ABC began its coverage, Beef Products Inc. was selling 5 million pounds of slime/beef/whatever every week. Then three of its four plants were forced to close, and production dropped to 1.6 million pounds. A weekly profit of $2.3 million had turned into a $583,000 weekly loss.

At Reuters, Steven Brill argued that the suit has merit. I won't try to comment on its legal viability, but the details of the claim do provide some useful background about how we name our processed foods, in both industry and the media. It turns out the paste now known within the business as lean finely textured beef descends from an older, less purified version of the same. Producers have long tried to salvage the trimmings from a cattle carcass by cleaning off the fat and the bacteria that often congregate on these leftover parts. At best they could achieve a not-so-lean class of meat called partially defatted chopped beef, which USDA deemed too low in quality to be a part of hamburger or ground meat.

By the late 1980s, though, Eldon Roth of Beef Products Inc. had worked out a way to make those trimmings a bit more wholesome. He'd found a way, using centrifuges, to separate the fat more fully. In 1991, USDA approved his product as fat reduced beef and signed off on its use in hamburgers. JoAnn Smith, a government official and former president of the National Cattlemen's Association, signed off on this "euphemistic designation," writes Marion Nestle in Food Politics. (Beef Products, Inc. maintains that this decision "was not motivated by any official's so-called 'links to the beef industry.' ") So 20 years ago, the trimmings had already been reformulated and rebranded once.

But the government still said that fat reduced beef could not be used in packages marked "ground beef." (The government distinction between hamburger and ground beef is that the former can contain added fat, while the latter can't.) So Beef Products Inc. pressed its case, and in 1993 it convinced the USDA to approve the mash for wider use, with a new and better name: lean finely textured beef. A few years later, Roth started killing the microbes on his trimmings with ammonia gas and got approval to do that, too. With government permission, the company went on to sell several billion pounds of the stuff in the next two decades.

In the meantime, other meat processors started making something similar but using slightly different names. AFA Foods (which filed for bankruptcy in April after the recent ground-beef scandal broke), has referred to its products as boneless lean beef trimmings, a more generic term. Cargill, which decontaminates its meat with citric acid in place of ammonia gas, calls its mash of trimmings finely textured beef.

So how did all these careful phrases get transformed into pink slime? According to the lawsuit from Beef Products Inc., the words pink slime were rarely placed in articles about the industry until spring 2012. Since then, they've showed up almost 5,000 times. In a four-week stretch starting March 7, the lawyers write, "Defendants used the phrase 'pink slime' 137 times on the ABC broadcasts, ABC online reports, and in social media postings." The lawsuit also says the network knew that finely textured beef wasn't all that slimy to begin with. The filing includes several images of the product, both as evidence of its not-so-nasty texture and to counter another claim by ABC that the product looks like Play-Doh. "When Defendants called [lean finely textured beef] 'pink slime,' consumers understood that Defendants were indicating that LFTB was a noxious, repulsive, and filthy fluid," the lawyers write. "The ABC Defendants' description of LFTB as 'pink slime' and 'Play-Doh' was knowingly false."

Leaving aside the question of what ABC really knew, it does seem clear that the network's branding blitz did a lot to promote the panic. The word slime suggests bacterial contamination; it even has a meaning in the lab, referring to a subset of gooey polysaccharides secreted by many microorganisms. The pink part only makes the phrase sound more fleshy and disgusting—like human genitals painted with a film of protozoa. But the labels tell a story that doesn't match the facts. In truth, the trimmings paste is not particularly unhealthy. Consumer watchdog groups seem to agree that ammoniated, processed beef is no more unsanitary or unappetizing than the other minced and remixed concoctions that emerge from the nation's meat factories. (It might even be the better choice.) Even Jim Avila of ABC News has conceded, "We've never said 'pink slime' is unsafe."

There's a symmetry to this. The beef industry tweaked its product and its brand, and it turned some sorry beef trimmings into a sprightly sounding, profit-making item called lean finely textured beef. Then ABC and others undid the market by offering up their own version of the product. Reconstrued as pink slime, the beef trimmings became a cash cow for the media. According to the lawsuit, ABC had dropped behind CBS in the ratings for 25- to 54-year-olds not long before the network began its coverage of the scandal. By the end of Slimeageddon, it was back in front and by a broader margin.

It's also true that the pink slime brand had its own miniature evolution. In the story for the Daily that started all the fuss in March, one of the two "whistleblowers" at USDA told reporter David Knowles that they'd started with a different name. "We originally called it soylent pink," he said. It's plain to see why this early label didn't stick. Soylent pink isn't so disgusting on its face—soy is food, after all—and the dated reference to the movie Soylent Green seems to miss the point. In that film, of course, the mystery food is made out of people. By going from soylent pink to pink slime, the critics switched the framing from its supposed lack of authenticity (finely textured beef isn't what you think) to its supposed lack of cleanliness (finely textured beef is fetid and disgusting).

In the end, though, the pink slime panic does boil down to a crisis of authenticity. The same ex-USDA inspector told Knowles that "my main objection was that it was not meat." Gerald Zirnstein, the microbiologist who typed out the words pink slime in an internal email, went on to write, "I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling." In an excellent essay on the dispute from back in March, Ari LeVaux points out that Zirnstein's gripe “is hardly damning criticism—it's like complaining that 2 percent milk is being labeled as whole milk."

It's not the first time that a panic over food ingredients has contained a hidden question of philosophy. Should we say a mash of beef trimmings is a kind of meat or not? What is the nature of beef itself? It may sound absurd to quibble over which cow parts count as flesh and which ones don't, but such debates form the basis of decisions made in government and by consumers, too. Consider the fight over whether it's OK to rename high-fructose corn syrup. The corn producers want to call their stuff corn sugar, but the people who grow beets and sugarcane don't want to lose their lock on what we've come to call real sugar. Never mind that one may be no more unhealthy or unappetizing than the other. Whether you're talking about a mash of beef trimmings or a corn-based sweetener, it's the labels that make the difference.