Dissing Food Can Be Dangerous

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Remember back in 1996 when Texas cattle ranchers sued Oprah Winfrey for discussing mad cow disease on her show? The ranchers lost in an appeal, but the lawsuit had a lasting effect.

Or did it? Did you know that we have to be careful when writing critically about any food or ingredient?

Food libel laws, like the ones in Texas and in 12 other states, are still very much alive. They allow a food manufacturer or processor to sue for what they believe are disparaging remarks about their products. Apple growers sued CBS a few years ago after the Alar apple scare, and McDonald’s has sued two environmental activists in England over a critical pamphlet.

Carrie Vitt of Deliciously Organic reminded me of these laws recently. She’s working on a book based on her blog, and her publisher is concerned about what she says in print. “I am allowed to say, “I don’t eat conventionally grown spinach because when I do I get a severe migraine. That would be OK because it’s just my opinion and I’m not telling anyone what they should or shouldn’t do,” she says.

But she has to make sure she does’t tell readers which foods to avoid or make any comments that could be considered disparaging. “I am telling people I use unpasteurized foods and whole wheat flour, and then also explaining why I don’t eat some foods.”

Carrie  noticed when Michael Pollan was on Oprah that “he was very careful in the way he talked about what he eats and made sure to say that it’s what ‘he’ prefers to eat, and not what he thought others should eat.  Oprah even laughed at one point and made a comment about ‘how you have to be very careful what you say.'”

“I could be going overboard,” concludes Carrie, “But I don’t have the millions like Oprah to defend myself. So the extra step of precaution, even if unnecessary, makes me feel like I’m doing a diligent job.”

I’m kind of surprised to hear this, because it seems like there are disparaging remarks everywhere about  such products as high-fructose corn syrup and factory farmed meats. Do you ever think about these laws when you write critically about certain foods? If not, does reading about these food libel laws change your mind?


  1. says

    Hadn’t considered that it would be an issue if you’re stating an opinion. Who’d thought it could be subject to libel when food writing about a generic product (produce, meat, etc.)? It’s in the way you phrase it and how high profile you are. If no one’s ever heard of you…does anyone care?

    Great post! Definitely food for thought.

    • diannejacob says

      That is a good question. In Oprah’s case the cattlemen tried to prove that the price of cattle futures fell as a result of her broadcast show. Clearly you and I wouldn’t have that kind of affect!

  2. says

    Another great and timely topic!! In most cases companies don’t pursue this because it simply isn ‘t worth it from a financial standpoint. However, in the case of Oprah and CBS I believe they were pursued because both are influential with their audiences and are considered “trusted” sources.
    Both Michael Pollan and Carrie Vitt are certainly entitled to voice their opinion on nutrition. However, since neither is a licensed healthcare provider they cannot , by California law, state that any food will cure (or prevent) any disease, disorder or condition.
    The old saying “you are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts” comes to mind. I think food writers/ bloggers need to be careful in terms of what they write. Stating your opinion is absolutely fine – however, stating it as fact can at best undermine your credibility and at worst land you in the position of Oprah and CBS.

    • diannejacob says

      Interesting about the California law. I wonder how many other states have requirements like this. Thanks, Nancy.

  3. says

    I think it’s important for people who “think” about food to voice their opinions. The vast majority of Americans haven’t thought about what they put into their mouths or why or how much to their detriment. People are beginning to question food sources, whether processed or local, because of Michael Pollan and many others and I sense a ground swell of interest in eating a cleaner, healthier, less processed, low fat, etc. diet from many middle aged Americans who never thought previously about the where, what, how and why let alone the politics of food. There are many ways to live a healthier and more tasteful life. Thank you to those who offer us suggestions on how to go about it.

    • diannejacob says

      Yes, and apparently we have their lawyers to thank for making them feel safe about doing so!

  4. says

    Hi Dianne,
    Currently, I believe 46 states have regulations of this nature – they of course are all not the same which makes it a bit challenging to offer general advice!! Bottom line, for those who want to write about nutrition, they should check with their own state about what the specific regulations are in their state and if they are really concerned, consult an attorney!