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What Happens When The Media Beefs With The Food Industry? | Serving Up Science

Oprah with a cow
Pixabay Creative Commons, Flickr Creative Commons

A few words were spoken and suddenly food prices plummeted. On this episode of Serving Up Science, science writer Sheril Kirshenbaum and WKAR's Karel Vega talk about the three most famous food libel cases of all time.

In lawsuits, the words libel and slander get discussed often, but what do they mean?

According to Mark Dotson, a professor at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, slander is when somebody defames another by spoken word. On the other hand, libel is when somebody defames another by written word.

But in the nineties, some states introduced laws creating additional standards for what constituted libel, as it's related to food products. The top three cases in the U.S. involve apples, mad cow disease and pink slime.

60 Minutes episode about Alar (Daminozide).
Credit Matthew Requintina / YouTube
60 Minutes episode about Alar (Daminozide).

Let's start with apples. In a 1989 episode of 60 minutes, CBS news reported that a chemical used to preserve apples, Daminozide (brand name Alar), was carcinogenic. The worst part was that the EPA knew about this for 16 years prior to the report.

People panicked. The demand for apples dropped.

Even though only an estimated 15% of U.S. apple trees actually used Daminozide at the time, according to the American Council on Science and Health, apple orchard owners lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

In response, apple orchard owners in Washington state filed suit against CBS for trade libel to recoup their losses.

But the growers were unable to disprove the 60 minutes report that Daminozide caused cancer, so the case was dismissed. 

That’s because trade libel puts the burden of proof on the plaintiff rather than the defendant; meaning, if you accuse someone of libel, you better have proof to back that claim up.

This case was a catalyst in the creation of food libel laws.

Following pressure from lobbyists, several states – including Texas – introduced laws like these. Now food manufacturers could feel confident filing a lawsuit against someone who made a disparaging claim. These laws have different standards depending on the state.

Let’s fast forward to 1996 and the next case involving mad cow disease.

Oprah Winfrey is arguably the best-known talk show host of the 90s, and her opinions weigh heavily with her fan base. If she recommends a book to her audience, it would most likely become a best-seller in no time. However, the “Oprah Seal of Approval” started the second famous food libel law case.

On April 16, 1996, the topic for Oprah’s show was dangerous foods. One of her guests was rancher turned animal rights activist Howard Lyman. The two spoke at the Harpo Studios in Chicago about the meat industry.

Lyman warned viewers of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease.

Sensory disturbances a cow displays when it has mad cow disease.
Credit Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine / YouTube
Sensory disturbances a cow displays when it has mad cow disease.

Mad cow was first documented in the mid 1980s in the United Kingdom. The fatal brain disease was spread through the practice of recycling cow and sheep carcasses into food for other cattle, known as rendering. According to The Centers for Disease Control, by the early 90s, mad cow had reached its peak in the UK with nearly 1,000 cases reported weekly.

The disease is also contagious to humans who eat the tainted cow meat. It can develop into Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is a neuro-degenerative disorder that the CDC said can leave people with a life expectancy of a little over a year once symptoms develop. 

Lyman argued that mad cow would soon become an epidemic in the United States as well, going as far as stating that the human variant of the disease could become as infectious as AIDS.

Oprah responded by saying Lyman’s claims had "just stopped me cold from eating another burger." 

Time Magazine reported that following Oprah’s mad cow disease segment, beef prices plunged for nearly two weeks, eventually reaching a ten year low.

Many members of the beef industry were upset. A group of ranchers known as the Texas Cattlemen sued Oprah for more than ten million dollars, alleging that she damaged their industry.

The basis for their lawsuit was a 1995 Texas law that said people could be held liable if they made false statements about perishable food.

In 1998, the case moved to a trial by jury in Amarillo, Texas. However, Oprah was still scheduled to host her show in Chicago. Did she cancel it?

Oprah in Amarillo, Texas
Credit Oprah Winfrey Network / YouTube
Oprah in Amarillo, Texas

Nope. She took her show on the road.

After five weeks, the jury decided that Oprah was exercising her freedom of speech and didn’t knowingly make any false statements.

Upon hearing the verdict, Oprah stated on the steps of the courthouse, “My reaction is that free speech not only lives, it rocks!”

Now let’s move to our last case: pink slime.

In 2012, a whistleblower from the beef industry came forward to ABC and said that some of the beef sold in the supermarket was padded with a filler, which was coined “pink slime.”

The beef industry sued ABC and was paid millions by the media company five years later. It never went to court.

Since each of these cases ended differently, it’s hard to know what is food libel and what is not without having a precedent.

As managing editor, Karel Vega supervises news reporters and hosts of news programming, and is responsible for the planning and editing of WKAR's news content.
Serving Up Science host Sheril Kirshenbaum is a history buff, science writer, and curious foodie.
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