For once we have a high-profile celebrity trial that might actually affect people. The bizarre lawsuit by a group of Texas cattlemen against Oprah Winfrey, scheduled to open in a federal court in Amarillo, Texas, on Tuesday, might seem like a bit of a joke, but it could have a profound impact on food safety. It could inhibit journalists from going after stories about dangerous food and it could put American consumers at increased risk of life-threatening diseases.
Several food-borne diseases, which were unheard of when small family farms produced America's meat and milk, are now quite common. Infections caused by salmonella organisms are surviving powerful antibiotics. A particularly grave threat comes from E. coli 0157, a bacterial strain nearly unknown a decade ago, which can give children horrific and sometimes fatal bouts of bloody diarrhea. Just last summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered the largest ever recall of E. coli-infected meat, involving 25 million pounds of beef produced at the Hudson Foods packing plant. For a few days, Burger Kings across the country had no burgers to sell.
Some of America's meat producers aren't keen on having these emerging diseases publicized. It's bad for business. Taking aim at Winfrey, with the huge public following she commands, is a key component of their strategy to shut down media attention.
The Texas cattlemen's lawsuit is a response to an "Oprah" broadcast in April 1996 that sent beef prices into free-fall for nearly two weeks. The show featured Howard Lyman, a former fourth-generation Montana cattle rancher, who once raised thousands of cattle a year. Today he spends nearly all his time crisscrossing the U.S. touting the benefits of vegetarianism. Also, in the interests of full disclosure, he wrote the foreward to my book, "Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating."
On the show, Lyman stated that mad cow disease, which had resulted in the deaths of at least 10 people in Britain and led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of cows there, could also appear in the U.S. Despite the insistence of the American cattle industry that there was no sign of mad cow disease in U.S. herds, Lyman suggested that some early signs were visible, that the disease "has the potential to affect thousands" of people, and could be as infectious as the AIDS virus.
While there is still some dispute, it is widely believed that mad cow disease infects cattle via "protein concentrates," which are derived from the discarded brains, spinal cords, blood and organs of slaughtered cattle. In Britain, the rendering process used to turn dead organs into protein concentrates failed to destroy the harmful "prions" that scientists think cause mad cow disease. American ranchers, like their British counterparts, were feeding millions of pounds of rendered cow flesh back to their cattle every year (the practice has since been banned in the U.S.), although they insist that the safety procedures were much stronger.
Few Americans knew anything about rendering until Lyman appeared on "Oprah." While Oprah herself challenged Lyman at one point about whether some of his statements were "extreme," she said Lyman's presentation "has stopped me cold from eating another hamburger!" The audience applauded wildly.
Many ranchers also went wild, for a different reason. Contrary to their gritty, freedom-loving image, they generally have a cushy life, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. All across the American West, ranchers are allowed to graze their cattle on federal land at bargain-basement prices. They pay just $1.35 to graze a steer on federal land for an entire month; that's less than it costs to feed a house cat. The fees don't even begin to cover the costs of fences, water tanks and dozens of other amenities the government builds for ranchers on federal lands. "Ranch owners are the original welfare kings," says rangeland historian Lynn Jacobs. "Every step of the way, the government has given them a free ride."
Some ranchers don't take kindly to those who would threaten their gravy train. Jacobs, who has repeatedly
criticized government handouts to ranchers, has endured a number of threatening acts from anonymous sources. On two occasions, the lug nuts on his van's tires were loosened, causing him to lose control at high speeds while his children were in the vehicle. After his dog Mishka went missing, Jacobs found the animal's skinned body by the side of the road near his house. Across the Western United States, federal employees have received
warnings to stay off government land where ranchers graze illegally.
"There are some places we won't go into anymore," says one Nevada Bureau of Land Management official.
With Oprah Winfrey, the chosen cudgel is the so-called food disparagement" law, currently on the books in various forms in Texas and 12 other states. The laws grew out of the disputed Alar chemical scare around apples in the late 1980s. The laws' supporters claim that they are needed to protect against baseless, wrong or unjustified claims about food dangers that threaten the livelihood of ranchers and farmers.
Initially, Texas cattlemen, outraged at Winfrey, tried to get the state to press charges (and pay all the legal costs). But the attempt failed when state Attorney General Dan Morales refused to file suit, telling the cattlemen Texas would not foot the bill for what looked like a ridiculously weak case, and advising the cattlemen to drop it. Under the state's food
disparagement law, prosecutors must prove that the defendant knowingly presented untruths. While Lyman's fears may not ultimately come to pass, nothing he said could be shown to be untrue. Lyman never claimed that mad
cow disease would definitely kill Americans; rather he
asserted that there were risks from cattle-to-cattle
feeding, which is true. The basis for suing Winfrey was even shakier, since all she did was interview Lyman, reveal her disgust with rendering practices and, like millions of other Americans, decide to swear off hamburgers.
But Paul Engler, a millionaire feedlot owner, insisted on pursuing the case and filed a $12 million suit in rural Amarillo. Why there, and not a major Texas city
like Dallas, Austin or Houston? Perhaps because Amarillo is in the heart of cattle country, making it somewhat easier to find a jury that sees eye-to-eye with the ranchers.
So far, the ranchers' attorneys have been quite effective in
keeping the details of the trial from becoming public. At the behest of rancher attorneys, U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson has issued a gag order on both parties. Last Friday, they filed a motion alleging that Winfrey had
breached the order. The supposed infraction: Her office had
sent a local Amarillo newspaper two publicity photographs in response to the paper's request.
Despite the absurdity of their case, the ranchers' chances with a local jury should not be underestimated. A victory in Amarillo would give farmers and ranchers all over the country a green light to file similar suits against pesky journalists and whistle-blowers raising questions about the safety of the nation's food supply.
Besides, even if the Texas ranchers fail this time, so long as such "food disparagement" laws exist, there's always a next time.