Skip to content
Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Food Defamation Laws

It is not enough for the food industry to get away with their burgeoning manipulation of the food supply — chemical additives, excessive pesticides and herbicides, irradiation, genetic engineering, non-labeling, and more. Now they want to shut up Americans who criticize or express an opinion about specific foodstuffs that these corporations believe to be false.

Agricultural organizations unleashed their lobbyists and got 13 state legislatures to pass food defamation laws in the past six years that gives agribusiness the right to sue citizen groups, health and safety critics, journalists or the “guy in the bar” who spreads allegedly false information about the hazards of any perishable food product — say beef, pork, broccoli, apples, tomatoes, artichokes — you name it.

Rest assured, before you put a self-imposed gag order on yourself, these food disparagement laws are an unconstitutional infringement upon free speech. The corporate law firms that authored these laws know this, constitutional law professors know this and the first court who hears the first case brought under these frivolous laws will so rule.

For over two hundred years, our country’s legal systems have refused to recognize “product libel.” People can maliciously libel a human being and be required to pay damages; but not inanimate products like Corvairs, Pinto fuel tanks, asbestos, Dalkon Shield, fruits, vegetables and meat products.

Robust debate and criticism have turned surmises and suspicions and anathemas into discoveries or recognition of facts and truths. One has only to look back at our history and see how the dissenters of the past — criticizing tobacco, coal dust, useless over-the-counter drugs and a variety of health-damaging food additives and pesticides — have been proven right again and again.

Certainly the food companies and their well-funded trade associations have the money and other means to counter with their positions. Indeed, your tax dollars at the U.S. Department of Agriculture service several of these food and fiber promotion budgets that industry checkoffs finance to disseminate television and print advertisements almost every day.

Now, it seems, corporations want to do what King George III, foreign dictators and bad domestic political bosses were unable to do — to shut up the American people. The cattle industry has chosen Talk Show Host, Oprah Winfrey, as their first defendant, suing her for saying on her show that she is going to stop eating hamburgers after hearing a guest talk about the looming risk of Mad Cow disease that was documented in England.

Two sizable cattle operations in Texas sued Ms. Winfrey in Amarillo, Texas, seeking over $6 million in alleged damages because the futures market for beef dropped for a day or two before recovering.

Now these ranchers know they will be awarded no money by the time their case is disposed of either in Texas or before the higher courts. For the realistic objective of these frivolous lawsuits is not money; it is to send a chilling message to millions of people that if Oprah can be sued for saying her mind about not eating hamburgers, then they better keep their own opinions to themselves.

Scholars have written that they believe free speech is the most fundamental of all the freedoms because it gives rise to those other freedoms. Stifling free speech by well-funded harassment suits, that get thrown out of court, is serious and deserves legal response.

We are not talking about behavior, actions, damage to human beings brought by product defect and medical malpractice law suits. We are speaking about speaking your views — what the founding fathers fought for in the American Revolution.

Oprah Winfrey can send a ringing freedom-of-speech message by filing an abuse of process countersuit against these ranching companies after she gets their case thrown out. Such an action is called a SLAPP-back suit against SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) suits.

Hundreds of these SLAPP suits against citizens and citizen groups (routinely thrown out of court) have been collected by law Professor Pring at the University of Denver Law School in Colorado. His book on the subject (Temple University Press) describes the stifling purpose of these malicious defamation lawsuits and recommends corrective actions through legislation (passed in some states already) and counter litigation strategies.

The courts have long ruled that a product such as a food cannot be defamed in America. To libel someone, you have to name that someone in your defamatory speech. As of now, pears, fish, beef, pork or cauliflower are now “someone”, are not a person.

Tell that to the corporations which are on a collision course with American democracy, dismantling it piece by piece by corrupting politics and elections, dominating media, monopolizing markets and stripping people of their full day in court when they are negligently injured or defrauded.

Maybe in pushing these “veggie libel” laws, these “banana” bills, corporations have finally invited the attentive ridicule and scorn of the public that will turn the tide on these anti-democracy hucksters.