AMARILLO, Texas -- A group of Texas cattlemen lost their court battle against popular talk-show host Oprah Winfrey last week, but the beef industry nevertheless claimed a moral victory, and one cattleman vowed to appeal the decision.
e futures prices. The cattlemen claimed the crash cost them $11 million.
Lisa Williams, a spokeswoman for the Texas Beef Council, told SN that her group, which was not a plaintiff, was disappointed by the jury's decision. However, she pointed out that Winfrey was found not liable for damages because her show did not target the plaintiffs. "The real issue, of responsible speech, was never addressed by the jury," Williams told SN. "The jury never considered whether harmful false statements about the beef industry were made.
"However, the overriding good news for the American consumer from this trial is that all the scientific experts that testified agreed that America has the safest beef in the world. So overall, it's still a win for the beef industry." Prior to the jury's decision, U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson had thrown out key elements of the lawsuit and ruled that it could not be tried under Texas' False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act of 1995 -- also known as the veggie-libel law -- which forbids false disparagement of agricultural products.
Winfrey said the decision was a victory for the First Amendment. "Free speech not only lives, it rocks," she told a crowd of reporters and fans outside the courthouse. "I took it for granted, and I never will again."
Howard Lyman, who is program director for the Washington-based Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement, "Lawsuits like this stifle speech about matters that have implications for the health and welfare of every American consumer."
Paul Engler, the lead plaintiff, told reporters he would appeal the decision.
During his guest appearance on Winfrey's show, cattle-rancher-turned-vegetarian-activist Lyman said that cattle were often fed ground-up cattle parts, a practice that could lead to mad cow disease. Lyman said the disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, would "make AIDS look like the common cold."
Winfrey responded on camera that Lyman's comments "just stopped me cold from eating another burger."
Average Texas- and Oklahoma-fed cattle prices dropped $3.30 per hundredweight after the show aired, according to local meat-industry sources. They estimated that the most damage was in "revenue not generated" in the three weeks following the broadcast, which was seen by millions across the country.
Although no case of mad cow disease has ever been found in the United States, it was blamed for killing at least 20 people in Britain in a health scare that alarmed most of Europe.
Under the Texas False Disparagement Act, a person is liable to the producer of a perishable food product for damages "if the person disseminates in any manner information relating to a perishable food product to the public; the person knows the information is false; and the information states or implies that the perishable food product is not safe for consumption by the public." Lawyers familiar with veggie-libel laws told SN that 12 other states currently had food-disparagement statutes in effect