A former government expert on mad cow disease testified Tuesday that he was “ambushed” on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
William Hueston said he agreed to appear on the 1996 program after a producer said he wanted “a voice of reason to calm the hysteria” about mad cow disease.
Testifying for a group of Texas cattlemen in their $10.3 million-plus beef-defamation case against Winfrey, Hueston said the show instead took an alarming turn.
Hueston accused Winfrey of “riling up” the audience, both during the show and the commercial breaks, and said he heard whispers of “You can’t trust the government.”
“I felt I was being ambushed,” Hueston said. He also said he sensed “a lynch mob mentality.”
But Charles Babcock, representing Winfrey and her production company, pointed out that during the show Hueston appeared to stand up for the rights of food safety activist and co-defendant Howard Lyman when asked by Winfrey if Lyman was overstating the danger of mad cow disease.
“I would say Howard is an example of what makes America the great country that it is now,” Hueston said in a clip edited from the show. Hueston said on the stand that he did not want to pick a fight with Lyman on the program. He also admitted that he did not call producers after the taping to complain about the tone of the show, even though it did not run until five days later.
Hueston testified that his reassuring comments about the safety of American beef were mostly edited out. Winfrey has said that much of what Hueston and a cattle industry spokesman said was deleted because it was redundant.
At the time, Hueston worked for the Agriculture Department in Washington. He is now a professor at the University of Maryland.
During the show, a food safety activist said that the feeding of processed cattle parts back to cattle in this country could spread the human version of mad cow disease in the United States. Winfrey responded by swearing off hamburgers.
The cattlemen say the program caused beef prices to fall to 10-year lows within a week. They are suing Winfrey under Texas’ food-disparagement law, which protects agricultural products from false and defamatory remarks.