Meat and Speech

Washington Post; Saturday, February 28, 1998

THE DEFAMATION case brought against Oprah Winfrey by Texas cattlemen fell apart pretty quickly after a judge set aside the nonsense about "veggie libel." The Thursday decision, in which the talk show host was cleared of business defamation charges stemming from a 1996 show in which she and a guest had discussed meat safety and threats of "mad cow disease," was a fairly orthodox reaffirmation of free speech doctrine: The host and her guest Howard Lyman were found not to have "recklessly disregarded" the truth in discussing the possible hazard, even if, as beef industry witnesses testified, the meat supply is in fact safe. But the verdict should end neither the vigorous discussion of food-safety issues nor the problem that the new perishable-products libel laws pose in the 13 states where they have been passed -- the threat that someone less able to mount a defense than Ms. Winfrey will be brought up on charges of defaming a product under the new laws, which lower the "reckless disregard" standard to mere factual inaccuracy and -- as many have warned -- unacceptably weaken the protections afforded vigorous debate.

The unsuccessful plaintiffs, who said they will appeal, also argued that they benefited from a trial that got their safety message out -- a fair position, to be sure, but one that should not be allowed to stand as the only legally safe stance in food-safety debates. "Mad cow" claims aside, there remain pressing food-safety questions that ought to be aired more, not less, as a result of this momentary spotlight.

There is, for instance, the possibility of increased risk to meat (and food generally) as packaging and shipping become more international.

More food is imported every year, and though safety regulations apply to incoming food as well as that processed here, the task is commensurately more complex. There is also the topic beloved of Ms. Winfrey's guest and co-defendant, Mr. Lyman, whose organization, the Humane Society, remains keen to air its concerns about the infectious potential of raising poultry and other animals in cramped or factory-farm conditions -- a good subject for public airing whatever you think of the larger pro- vegetarian thrust of Mr. Lyman's argument.

Finally, there is the new federal meat safety inspection system, which requires a broad shift from federal inspectors watching every slaughterhouse and packing line to packers policing, reporting and analyzing their own processes -- a promising and necessary shift but one that is likely to involve growing pains. The Government Accountability Project, a whistle-blowers' support organization, has been fielding complaints about lax follow-up in some of these early stages. Such problems, too, can be fixed -- as long as there is disclosure, scrutiny and vigorous debate on this and other food-safety issues.

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