NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Maligning Food

June 1, 1999

Are food libel laws a good idea? Proponents think there should be recourse against those who purvey junk science and scare consumers away from certain agricultural products -- as CBS News did a decade ago in demonizing the chemical Alar, causing apple sales to plummet.

Those opposing such laws argue that scientists should not be muzzled and the consumer has a right to know when an agricultural chemical or process might threaten the nation's health.

  • At least 32 states have considered legislation that makes it easier to sue people who criticize the food and agriculture industries.
  • So far, 13 states have passed such laws.
  • While such laws vary from state to state, they are not as strict as traditional libel laws because they do not usually require proof of malice or that a specific person or product be falsely defamed, according to legal experts.
  • The statutes in effect reach across state borders since they apply to the production of national television programs and the preparation of manuscripts published into books sold nationwide.

Aside from the Alar scare, the most highly visible case recently was the suit by Texas cattleraisers against television personality Oprah Winfrey, who had stated on her show that the threat of "mad cow" disease had stopped her from "eating another burger."

A federal judge ruled in the case that the cattlemen could not sue under the Texas food libel law and a Texas jury ruled in Winfrey's favor. The cattlemen have appealed.

Source: Melody Petersen, "Farmers' Right to Sue Grows, Raising Debate on Food Safety," New York Times, June 1, 1999.


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