The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association slogan is, “Beef. It’s What You Want.” Well, what if it isn’t? Under the protection of the First Amendment, Americans have the right to say they want — or don’t want — whatever they wish. But in the case of Oprah Winfrey, saying no to beef has landed her in court for libel.
A consortium of Texas cattlemen are suing Winfrey, her production company and her vegetarian activist guests. On an episode of Winfrey’s show, her guests discussed the health risks of beef. The Texas cattlemen are suing under Texas’ 1995 product disparagement law, which makes people liable if they “disseminate in any manner information relating to a perishable food product to the public,” if they know the information to be false or if it states or implies that the perishable food is not safe for public consumption. The cattlemen claim Winfrey and her guests’ comments caused beef prices to drop.
Almost half the states have such laws. They are insidious. The current suit follows a 1989 controversy that began when CBS’s “60 Minutes” broadcast an episode claiming the chemical Alar, used to lengthen the ripening time of apples, could cause cancer in humans. Washington State apple growers sued and lost because the CBS show did not defame any specific grower, only the product. So agricultural businesses pushed for laws that protect produce in general. Such laws as the Texas statutes and other similar “veggie libel” laws stifle debate, infringe on First Amendment freedoms and prevent people from forming their own opinions. Possibly a reckless allegation directed towards perishable or even non-perishable items could cause damage to an industry. Such a statement would already be liable to a libel suit. Even so, Winfrey’s show was not libelous.
Citing World Health Organization statistics linking Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy and similar human neurological diseases, Winfrey’s guests said beef might be more dangerous than currently acknowledged. Howard Lyman, executive director of the Humane Society’s Eating with Conscience program, described the cattle industry practice of feeding protein-rich meat — including beef — to cows. The animals are, by nature, herbivores. This practice is common in the United States and is blamed for the cow disease. The illness is probably transmitted to humans when they eat infected beef. Eight Britons have died of the disease. On the same show, several beef industry representatives defended the U.S. beef supply as free from bovine spongiform.
But neither the balanced and fair approach of her show nor the fundamental truth of the claims made are permissible defenses under the Texas law. This is where it is most pernicious; veggie libel laws do more than simply silence speech. When the truth is unpalatable, they demand that otherwise honest people lie. Winfrey is the food industry’s first high-profile target. If the law is used against her successfully, she won’t be its last victim. Anybody who decides that beef is not what they want, anyone who hasn’t got milk or who says pork is just another red meat had better watch out. They will be silenced next.