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Eat, Drink, and Be Liable

by Bruce Haring

We live in a world where you can’t speak your mind on a number of social, racial, religious, and political matters.

You can add food to that list. That’s because there are 13 US states that prohibit you from publicly “disparaging” their food products. Think it’s unhealthy to eat certain brands of hot dogs? Claim that too much sugar in your morning cereal might damage your health? Genetically modified food and the lack of long-term studies have you nervous?

Don’t say it too loudly or in the media, particularly the national media. You’re putting yourself in potential legal jeopardy.

These strange-but-true laws that limit your expression with regard to food are known informally as the “veggie libel laws,” but there’s some meat in the fine print. Many of the laws allow for punitive damages and attorney’s fees for the plaintiff (ie, the food giants whom you disparage) and have a lower standard for civil liability, lowering the actual malice and falsity standards that apply in other libel cases.

‘Veggie laws’ apply to authors, journalists, and average citizens — and suits can be filed even if the claims are backed by science.

The laws have been around for awhile, but they’re not just targeting the guy at the end of the bar who’s going off about meat, or the ardent vegan whose constant blogging about non-meat products pokes a sharp stick in the eye of meat-eaters. The veggie laws apply also to authors, journalists, and average citizens, and suits can be filed even if the claims are backed by science. While traditional libel laws make it terrifically hard to make your case, the lowered standards for product libel create an easier barrier to cross.

Current states with veggie libel laws in place include Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas.

Oprah and Her Burgers

The landmark case in veggie libel happened in 1998. Oprah Winfrey found herself in hot legal water when the Texas Beef Group sued her and a former cattle rancher named Howard Lyman, who contributed to an Oprah TV show on the dangers of Mad Cow Disease. The plaintiff’s lawyers in the case argued that Oprah and Lyman’s negative comments —Oprah purportedly said fear of the disease would stop her from eating another burger — cost their clients more than $12 million in lost profits and stock plunges.

Ultimately, it was found that the duo’s statements did not constitute libel. But the publicity definitely put a chill in the air when it comes to discussing health risks, environmental impacts, and other issues that may affect the food industry and could affect public perception. You certainly don’t hear Oprah talking about it anymore.

So what does it mean to you? There are those who argue that animal rights activists and vegetarians who discuss the alleged health risks of meat consumption are muted by the laws. It also puts a chill to those who might quibble with, say, Monsanto or other giant agribusiness concerns who are producing genetically modified food, or using high fructose corn syrup in their products.

In the Winfrey case, the judge noted that it was “difficult to conceive of any topic of discussion that could be of greater concern and interest to all Americans the safety of the food that they eat.”

Just don’t bring that up to a Texas cattleman. Them’s fightin’ words.

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