Freedom of Speech, Hurt Feelings, and Economic Loss(libel Laws and Food safety)(Column)(Brief Article)

By Saltzman, Joe | USA TODAY, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Freedom of Speech, Hurt Feelings, and Economic Loss(libel Laws and Food safety)(Column)(Brief Article)


Saltzman, Joe, USA TODAY


What do strawberry growers, cattle raisers, and anti-child pornography activists have in common? They all want to limit what you say and how and when you say it.

The newest wrinkle is referred to as "the adverse economic effects" of free speech. We live in a time when food scares are hurting agribusiness in this country. So, big businesses that sell vegetables and fruits have banded together to try to stop health officials from warning the public about possible contaminants that may cause sickness or even death.

In 1996, California's strawberry industry lost an estimated $20-40,000,000 in nationwide sales after a Texas health official pinned an outbreak of cyclospora, a parasitic illness, on strawberries. The health official had acted in good faith, but was wrong. It turned out the cyclospora problem was caused by Guatemalan raspberries. This season, the California Strawberry Commission reported that financially devastated farmers removed about 3,000 acres from strawberry production, costing an estimated 5,000 farm workers their jobs. A spokesman said: "We have been a victim of what you could technically say was a false accusation."

The result of this and other similar instances is that agriculture-friendly states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and North Dakota have passed laws that make it a crime to falsely denigrate fruits and vegetables. They want a full-fledged libel law in which the damaged parties could sue in civil court in an effort to recoup monetary losses. They want health officials to wait until all the facts are in before they brand a culprit.

On the surface, that sounds fair. Laws involving free speech always sound fair. But what this really means is that health officials who dare to issue early warnings to the public about specific cases of E. coli in beef and unpasteurized apple juice, cyclospora in raspberries, salmonella in eggs, or hepatitis A in frozen strawberries and who are mistaken can be sued for money lost.

At the very least, it means that health officials, fearing such libel suits, will have to wait until the public's exposure to such a contaminant is fully proved. This undoubtedly will come too late to protect those people who eat possibly tainted fruits or vegetables. While it may save the agribusiness community millions of dollars, it ties health officials' hands in warning the public. This could result in a major health catastrophe if early assumptions, not fully proved, turn out to be true.

These "veggie libel" laws make good material for stand-up comedians' jokes (saying "I don't like broccoli could land you in jail"), but it's no laughing matter. The danger here goes beyond normal free speech. It is clamping shut the mouths of the very people the public hires to protect it. As one attorney put it, these bills are designed specifically to stop the Rachel Carsons of the world from alerting the public to food-safety risks. If these were in effect in 1962, when Carson published Silent Spring, a book about the dangers of the pesticide DDT, they would have sued her and forced her into bankruptcy, and wildlife and human life would have been seriously jeopardized. …

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