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?