Take the gag off food safety issues
Laws that say you can sue food critics keep the public from knowing the dangers in what they eat.
by J. Robert Hatherill
Times are tough when you have to talk in hushed tones about hamburger safety. These days, merely implying that a food is unsafe can land you in court, as Oprah Winfrey learned with her now-famous comments against ground beef.
The lesson swiftly became a personal one when my publisher stripped lengthy passages from my new book. Simply put, I was not allowed to disclose dangers inherent in some common foods like dairy and meat products, as well as over-the-counter medicines like calcium supplements and nonprescription pain remedies. The problem had nothing to do with whether there was sufficient evidence to support the claims-there is-it came down to fear of litigation. I was told, "We could win the lawsuit, but it would cost us millions, and it's just not worth it."
My disturbing experience is part of a trend that is sweeping the country. We are losing one of the basic tenets our country was founded upon: free speech. The safety of food is mired in a deep, politically charged battle being waged on many fronts: in Congress, convincing legislators of the safety of many types of food and drugs; in the courts, silencing consumers from voicing opinions; and in the media, via huge advertising budgets.
Behind all of this is the fact that North America's food has undergone a startling change since World War II. The pastoral days of food production have been replaced by a gigantic, mechanized industrial complex. In the last half-century, the modern food purveyors have centered their efforts on the use of chemicals-many of which are harmful-to produce larger crops, plumper livestock and better textured and flavorful food with long shelf lives.
To achieve these goals, the food industry has assailed Congress with more than 200 food-lobby groups. The deftly concealed agenda of the food industry is not to nourish or even feed but to force consumers into an ever-increasing dependence on processed foods. Rather than valuing food for its ability to sustain health, it has now become the object of catchy commercials with celebrity endorsements.
Modern food processing not only strips away natural anti-cancer agents, but searing heat forms potent cancer-producing chemicals in the process. In the end, it is consumers who suffer from the alien food. These profound changes in our diet are leading to enormous health consequences.
Unfortunately, it is no coincidence that since 1950 cancer rates have steadily increased and are now at the highest point in history. In the past few years, the food junta unveiled its new business strategy. While parceling out a new wave of junk foods, fresh from its chemistry laboratories, it conspired and began its ominous push for food-libel laws. The fight began with a report about Alar, the popular growth-regulator for apples that lessens bruising and imparts a richer color. The Alar controversy erupted in 1989, after a CBS-TV "60 Minutes" episode depicted it as a cancer-causing agent. Promptly, apple sales plummeted. Many schools banned fruit treated with Alar. The angry apple growers sued CBS and lost. The manufacturer eventually stopped making it. The food industry, embittered by the high-profile defeat, but intensified efforts toward the new food libel laws.
During the last decade, at least a dozen states enacted these laws. Traditional libel laws have stated that only a corporation or a living person can be disparaged. But with the current food-libel statutes, former President George Bush could be hauled into court for disparaging broccoli.
The mere presence of these libel laws is forbidding. They can entangle one in costly litigation, regardless of who wins the lawsuit. The Texas cattlemen's case against Winfrey cost nearly $1 million to defend at the trial level alone. That does not include the costs of the federal case that is on appeal and another proceeding in state court.
Winfrey's victory is largely a symbolic gesture, a last gasp of free speech, since big industry can still drag anyone into court for merely discussing food safety. The end result is the silence of the majority of people who do not have the deep pockets or the time necessary to stage costly legal battles.
Food is shipped to market from all corners of the world, and consumers now have more reason to be watchful than ever before. Free speech is vital to those who speak on food safety issues. Food libel laws have made a mockery of our rights to free speech and need to be quickly repealed. The public has every right to know about the safety and nutritional value of the food it purchases and eats. J. Robert Hatherill, a Research Scientist and Faculty Member of the Environmental Studies Program at UC Santa Barbara, is the author of Eat to Beat Cancer (Renaissance Books 1998).