In some parts of the United States, you can be sued for disparaging pears, castigating cauliflower, ridiculing emu meat or - as TV celebrity Oprah Winfrey learned - bad-mouthing beef.
Thirteen states, responding to pressure from agricultural organizations, have adopted food defamation laws in the 1990s. More than a dozen other states are considering similar legislation.
In general, these statutes make it possible for farmers and ranchers to win damages from consumer groups, health advocates, journalists or anyone else who spreads false information about the safety of a food product.
So far, the laws have been little used. But that could change soon. Their first court test is set for Jan. 7, the starting date for a federal jury trial of a lawsuit filed by Texas cattle ranchers against Winfrey and one of her guests.
The ranchers claim the cattle industry lost millions of dollars as a result of remarks made primarily by Howard Lyman, a vegetarian and director of the Humane Society’s Eating with Conscience Campaign, on the “Oprah” show of April 16, 1996.
Lyman told Winfrey’s large television audience that thousands of American cows die each year of unknown causes and are “ground up, turned into feed and fed back to other cows. If only one of them has mad cow disease, (it) has the potential to infect thousands.”
Turning to her audience, Winfrey asked: “Now doesn’t that concern you all a little bit right here, hearing that?”
The audience agreed.
Cattle futures plummeted after the broadcast.
The suit was filed by Paul Engler, an Amarillo rancher, and Cactus Feeders, a large cattle producer in the Texas Panhandle. They demanded $6.7 million from Lyman, Winfrey and her production company.
But many civil libertarians are convinced that food defamation statutes stifle free speech.
“Sooner or later, these laws will be held unconstitutional. I’m sure of it,” said P. Cameron DeVore, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in freedom of expression.
But Steve Kupperud, senior vice president of the American Feed Industry Association, is a foremost advocate of food disparagement laws.
“… If activists stand up and say ‘cauliflower causes breast cancer,’ they’ve got to be able to prove that,” Kupperud said. “I think that to the degree that the mere presence of these laws has caused activists to think twice, then these laws already have accomplished what we set out to do.”
Food disparagement laws were triggered by the failure of apple growers in Washington state to obtain damages for losses attributed to a CBS “60 Minutes” broadcast in 1989. The broadcast said Alar, a chemical used to lengthen the time that apples ripen on trees, could cause cancer.
The apple growers’ suit was dismissed on grounds that the alleged defamation was directed at a product, not specific producers, and a food could not be defamed.
After that, agricultural organizations started pushing for laws that would punish false statements about food products.
xxxx Local laws Idaho is one of 13 states that have food disparagement laws. Washington is reported to be considering one.