land of the free, home of the food disparagement laws

There are some fucked up laws out there, tell you what. There are the obviously fucked up: The Patriot Act, laws in Bavaria making any unregistered “meeting” of more than two people an “illegal gathering,” and every law that morphs innocent ole dumpster diving into the ill-boding refrain of “trespassing” and “robbery.” Then there are the bizarre: Old laws still on the books from who knows when, made ridiculous in absense of their original context, fit only for chain emails and poorly designed websites. (Who am I kidding? How many laws are there that don’t lean toward the ridiculous?) In Indiana, for example, there is still a law on the books stating that “Citizens are not allowed to attend a movie house or theater nor ride in a public streetcar within at least four hours after eating garlic.” And in the West Virginia law books you can still find a dusty old statute declaring that “No children may attend school with their breath smelling of ‘wild onions.'”

Even more paradoxical then, especially in light of clear evidence of anti-garlic sentiment, are America’s food disparagement laws–a law (available in thirteen state colors!) that allows corporations, farmers, and evil villians to take anyone who publically “disparages” their products to court. Though once in court the food disparagement laws tend to bow before the almighty American right to Freedom of Speech (hahahaha, you still believe that one?), who has the time for a multi-million dollar lawsuit? Oprah Winfrey, that’s who.

Once upon a time in the decade of flannel shirts and grunge records the Texas Beef Group took Oprah to court for saying that she would never eat another hamburger again. It went something like this:

It’s April, 1996, mad cow disease is in every headline, and Oprah–hype mongerer that she is–does a segment entitled “Dangerous Foods.” Her guests are Howard Lyman–a farmer and animal welfare activist–and Dr. Gary Weber–a representative of the National Cattle Association. They were talking mad cow when Lyman mentioned a process fairly common in the beef industry called rendering. Rendering–for those of you who missed Oprah that day–is a nice word for “grounding up dead cows, cooking them, and feeding them back to the rest of the beef herd.”

“A hundred thousand cows per year in the United States are fine at night, dead in the morning,” Lyman said. “The majority of those cows are rounded up, ground up, fed back to other cows. If only one of them has mad cow disease, (this) has the potential to affect thousands. Remember today, (in) the United States, 14 percent of all cows by volume are ground up, turned into feed, and fed back to other animals.”

Oprah, like a lot of people hearing about the inner workings of the meat industry for the first time, looked a bit shocked. “But cows are herbivores,” she said, “they shouldn’t be eating other cows.”

“That’s exactly right,” Lyman went on, “and what we should be doing is exactly what nature says, we should have them eating grass–not other cows. We’ve not only turned them into carnivores, we’ve turned them into cannibals.” Howard knows this because Howard was a farmer himself. He also knows this because the USDA keeps statistics to keep track of exactly how much rendering is happening in the beef industry. When Howard told Oprah that his statements were backed by both experience and public record, she looked even more shocked. “It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger,” she said.

Those ten words–a reaction that most people could understand given the context (SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!!!!)–ended up costing Oprah, as of June 1999, over a million in legal fees. The beef industry was scared. I imagine them, a small group of white, overweight Texans sitting in your stereotypical board room with furrowed brows. “We can still write the Peta people off as lunies, but what if the rest of the country finds out about what we’ve been doing?” I imagine that it was about then that they had a nice, long collective shudder and called their lawyers.

So one fine day theTexas Beef Group took Oprah to court using the food disparagement laws and claimed that her statement had led to $12 million in losses–can you smell the rancid, rotting piles of unsold steaks in little non-biodegradbale styrofoam trays spilling out of dumpsters across America?–and that she needed to pay up. People were eating less beef. Mad cow was all over the news. But Oprah–a woman capable of turning The Graps of Wrath into a bestseller overnight–she has some wide-reaching media power and that makes her dangerous. No wonder the beef industry was scared. If consumers started basing their purchases on fact instead of advertisements picturing happy cows in green pastures, well, the beef industry would be screwed.

Lucky for us all the mad cow epidemic passed into the history books and the court ruled in Oprah’s favor. Afterall, the court said, “Lyman’s opinions, though strongly stated, were based on truthful, established fact.”

In the early nineties a similar farce played itself out in the apple industry. Then the offender was CBS’s “60 Minutes,” where a report revealing the carginogenic effects of alar, a chemical then-commonly used by apple farmers. The report was followed by a brief slump in the apple industry as many familes and schools took apples off their menus. The apple industry took CBS to court and lost because, guess what!, alar is carinogenic and has since been banned. The apple market eventually stabilized, replacing alar with some other poison that, until now, remains FDA-approved.

So what is the point, you ask? Why bother having these laws at all? They’re clearly unconstitutional. “But, no!,” scream supporters from their rooftops, these laws protect farmers from destructive rumor-mongering! I’d be willing to consider it as plausible, if there had ever been a court case involving the food disparagement laws that was convincingly concerned with “helping the farmers” and not “keeping disturbing facts about *insert food industry name here* out of the media.” There is a reason these laws are often nick-named the “veggie-hate laws.”

Not only that, but the food disparagement laws have created what people in the industry call a “media chill” on food criticism. People worried about law suits either avoid the subject entirely or water down their message. The New York Times, who reported about the incident at the time, were highly critical of the law’s potential for overt censorship.

“Last year,” The Times reported, “editors at Renaissance Books in Los Angeles called J. Robert Hatherill, a research scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, to tell him they had cut long passages from the manuscript of his book ‘Eat to Beat Cancer.’ Gone was information on growth hormones administered to dairy cows, Professor Hatherill said, as well as facts from a study showing the amounts of lead found in over-the-counter calcium supplements.

‘The book is a very watered-down version of what I intended,’ he said.

Renaissance, through a spokesman, declined to comment.

And a year ago, Vital Health Publishing of Bloomingdale, Ill., canceled a book, ‘Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food,’ after the manuscript had been sent to the printers. The publisher had received a letter from a lawyer at the Monsanto Company who said he believed the manuscript, which he had not seen, included false statements that would disparage a herbicide called Roundup, made by Monsanto.

Marc Lappe, a toxicologist and co-author of the book, said the manuscript had already been approved by the publisher’s lawyer. But Monsanto’s letter changed the lawyer’s mind, Mr. Lappe said, because of concerns that the publisher could be sued under the food libel laws in other states. Lawmakers in Illinois have defeated efforts to enact a similar law. ”

Why admit we want people to shut up and get in line when we can financially pressure them into censoring themselves? Welcome to America. Land of the free, home of the brave, etc.

You can read the New York Times article yourself here and the full text of each participating state’s food disparagement law here.

If you’d like to take action, I would recommend skipping the letter writing and the petition signing and inform yourself about all the foods in your grocery basket, and all the processes that go into getting them to you, so you don’t have to wait for another food disparagement suit to find out that there are chemicals and poisons in our groceries and that soylent green is still people. The internet is rife with information that has yet to be banned in court. Better hurry.

0 Comments on “land of the free, home of the food disparagement laws

  1. Very nice, informative and entertaining piece. I love your style. Keep it up!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.