Oprah Winfrey Lawsuit By Beef Industry
January 5, 2012 by staff
Oprah Winfrey Lawsuit By Beef Industry, On June 19, a British judge ruled that two environmental activists had committed “McLibel” when they criticized the McDonald’s restaurant chain for serving fatty, unhealthy foods, damaging the environment, paying low wages and mistreating animals.
Although Justice Rodger Bell acknowledged that there was a factual basis for all of these criticisms, under Britain’s reactionary libel law he ruled that activists Helen Steel and Dave Morris were guilty anyway and ordered them to pay $96,000 in damages.
In the United States, meanwhile, the food industry is working overtime to enact British-style libel laws that make it easier to silence American activists and journalists. The first target of such a lawsuit in the U.S., ironically enough, is Howard Lyman of the Humane Society of the U.S., who is being sued along with Oprah Winfrey for warning on the Oprah Show about the human dangers associated with England’s epidemic of mad cow disease.
The United States legal system has historically placed a high value on freedom of speech. The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
New “agricultural product disparagement laws,” however, are being placed on the books precisely for the purpose of “abridging freedom of speech.” The new laws give the food industry unprecedented powers to sue people who criticize their products, using standards of evidence which dramatically shift the “burden of proof” in favor of the industry. “In them, American agribusiness has its mightiest tool yet against food-safety activists and environmentalists, whose campaigns can cost industry millions if they affect consumers’ buying habits,” observes Village Voice reporter Thomas Goetz.
The lawsuit against Howard Lyman, filed in 1996 by cattleman Paul Engler, states that Lyman’s warning about mad cow disease “goes beyond all possible bounds of decency and is utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” Apparently England is the type of intolerant “civilized community” that Engler would like to emulate.
If the meat industry has its way, your information about food safety issues will be limited to self-serving propaganda like this ad by the American Meat Institute.
The lawsuit marks the first test case for a new legal standard which the agriculture industry has spent the past half-decade introducing into dozens of U.S. states. “All agricultural eyes will be watching this one,” observed one food industry lobbyist. Engler’s attorney described the suit as “a historic case; it serves as a real bellwether. It should make reporters and journalists and entertainers–and whatever Oprah considers herself–more careful.”
Thirteen states to date have enacted “food disparagement” laws. Under previous laws, the food industry bore the burden of proof. In order to win a libel case, it had to prove that its critics were deliberately and knowingly circulating false information.
Under the new laws, however, it doesn’t matter that Lyman believes in his statements, or even that he can produce scientists who will support him. The industry will be able to convict him of spreading “false information” if it can convince a jury that his statements on the Oprah show deviated from “reasonable and reliable scientific inquiry, facts, or data”–a legal standard which gives a clear advantage to the multi-billion-dollar beef industry, particularly in Texas cattle country –and particularly with respect to mad cow disease, an exotic illness whose characteristics continue to baffle researchers.
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