Newsletter #55–Aug./Sep. 1999

Agribusiness Suits Over Food 'Defamations'—One Bad Apple…

by Kathleen Wilkinson

If you thought the fallout from the apple scare over the use of the pesticide Alar was just a matter of environmental poisoning (as if that wasn't bad enough), there's more you should know. The losses suffered by apple farmers led to lobbying efforts in states around the country. The result: 13 states passed laws to help protect farmers and food companies from criticism that could lead consumers to shun their products. The states are Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Lousiana, North Dakota, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas.

According to a June 1 article in The New York Times, publishers and media companies are responding by self-censoring out of the fear of being sued. The article, by Melody Petersen, cites a number of examples. For instance, Alec Baldwin contends that the Discovery Channel balked at his "History of Food" documentary when he told them that part of the four-hour show would be devoted to pesticides, herbicides and some questionable practices used to raise beef. The Discovery channel, of course, denies the allegations.

Controversial information on growth hormones given to dairy cows and the presence of lead in calcium supplements was cut from J. Robert Hatherhill's book Eat to Beat Cancer. The University of California, Santa Barbara research scientist insists that the book "is a very watered-down version" of what he had intended. The publisher had no comment.

Another author found his book Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food canceled by Vital Health Publishing after it received a threatening letter from Monsanto. Marc Lappé and co-author Britt Bailey were eventually able to print the book with Common Courage Press, but the problem of publishers and media stations caving in to the substantial pressure from multinational conglomerates is not so easily solved.

Probably the highest profile lawsuit filed under such a law involved the Texas cattle association case against Oprah Winfrey for comments during an episode of her daytime talk show on the threat of "mad cow" disease. "It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger," the popular host exclaimed. One million dollars in legal fees later, she won a jury ruling in her favor, but the cattlemen are appealing the case.

Because books and television shows reach a national audience, "the statutes are in effect reaching across state borders, causing consumers everywhere to get less information about food safety," Petersen writes. Even environmental groups, like Vermont's Food and Water and the Ohio Sierra Club, are finding themselves closely scrutinized and fearful about talking about the dangers of irradiation and genetically engineered foods. According to the article, many volunteers worry, "Can we get sued?"

Bruce E. H. Johnson, a Seattle lawyer (who represented CBS in the apple growers' suit over its "60 Minutes" episode on the carcinogen Alar) notes that if the current laws had been in place when Rachel Carson published her groundbreaking work on the dangers of pesticides, Silent Spring, she might not have found any one to print it. "If society wants to continue to have safe food," he says, "you need to have free and open discussion of the risks."

For a copy of The New York Times article, contact the BCA office.