Mad Cowboys: The Beef Industry Takes Aim at 'Food Disparagement.'

By Stauber, John; Rampton, Sheldon | E Magazine, November-December 1997 | Go to article overview

Mad Cowboys: The Beef Industry Takes Aim at 'Food Disparagement.'


Stauber, John, Rampton, Sheldon, E Magazine


"You said [mad cow disease] could make AIDS look like the common cold?" asked TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey. "Absolutely," said her guest, Howard Lyman of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). "That's an extreme statement, you know," Winfrey said. "Absolutely," Lyman said again. "A hundred thousand cows per year in the U.S. are fine at night, dead in the morning. The majority of those cows are rounded up, ground up, fed back to other cows. If only one of them has mad cow disease, it has the potential to affect thousands."

After hearing a bit more of what Lyman, a former Montana rancher who now represents HSUS' Eating With a Conscience Campaign, had to say about the danger of mad cow disease coming across the Atlantic from England, Winfrey was convinced. "It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger," she said.

The Oprah show aired on April 16, 1996, less than a month after the British government reversed a decade of denial and admitted that consumption of beef from mad cows was the "most likely" explanation for the appearance of a bizarre, previously unseen dementia in humans known as "new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease," an incurable and invariably fatal strain that kills its victims by filling their brains with microscopic, spongy holes. To date, only 19 cases have been documented. Lyman's statement about mad cow disease being "worse than AIDS' was based on the fact that both can take years, even decades, to incubate, thereby making it impossible to predict the size of an outbreak during its early stages.

The broadcast produced a dramatic price drop in cattle futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and an uproar from the meat industry, lead by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA). Despite the fact that Winfrey agreed to a follow-up interview with the NCBA's policy director, the industry took legal action anyway, with a $2 million lawsuit filed against Lyman and Oprah by beef feedlot operator Paul Engler. The suit charges that Lyman made "biased, unsubstantiated, and irresponsible claims against beef..."

The lawsuit against Lyman marked the historic first test case for a new legal standard which the agriculture industry has spent the past five years lobbying into law in more than a dozen U.S. states - "food disparagement." Engler's attorney describes the suit as "an historic case; it should make reporters and journalists and entertainers - and whatever Oprah considers herself - more careful."

Under the new laws, 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 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, where the lawsuit was filed.

In legal jargon, food disparagement suits are called SLAPPs, for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. The SLAPP against Oprah originated in a coordinated campaign spearheaded by the nonprofit Washington-based Animal Industry Foundation, whose funding comes from the meat industry. …

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