13. Gag Me with a Food Disparagement Law

by Project Censored

Sources: UTNE READER Date: January 2, 1996 Title: “Watch Your Mouth” Author: Helen Cordes; WASHINGTON FREE PRESS Date: April 5, 1996, Title: “Lettuce Libel,” Author: Eric Nelson; COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW, Date: September/October 1996, Title: “The Alar `Scare’ Was For Real,” Author: Elliott Negin; USA TODAY, Date: March 27, 1996, Title: “Warning: You can be sued for insulting vegetables: Industry turns to laws on `food disparagement’,” Author: Ann Oldenburg

SSU Censored Researchers: Carli Dolieslager, Amber Knight

Agribusiness groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation have been, and still are, lobbying for legislation which would make it illegal for anyone to make a claim that a food is unsafe for human consumption without having “sound” scientific evidence to back it up. These gag laws are referred to as “banana bills” or “agricultural disparagement” laws and would enable companies producing perishable goods, such as meat, produce, medicine, and tobacco, to sue anyone who makes a claim that their product—or anything used to process or preserve their product—is unsafe. But who determines what is “sound science?” Thalidomide and DDT were once endorsed by the “sound” scientific community, but later, after links to birth defects and cancers were established, they were banned.

The birth of disparagement laws occurred in 1989 when the legendary CBS news magazine show 60 Minutes publicized a Natural Resources Defense Council report charging that the chemical Alar, which enhances the appearance of apples, caused cancer. Apples, apple juice, and applesauce were immediately removed from grocery store shelves, resulting in a loss of $130 million to Washington apple growers. In response, the Washington growers sued the television show for $250 million—insisting that their product had been falsely disparaged. Supporters of the agricultural disparagement laws aim to make products easier to market as well as to avoid significant financial losses.

These laws are a direct threat to the free speech rights granted under the First Amendment. Under such food disparage-ment laws, mass media and individual citizens would lose their right to inform—and to be informed. If you’re sued for disparagement and you lose, the punishment in Idaho is typical: you have to pay the plaintiff for recovery of all and any financial loss. In Colorado, you could also go to prison for a year. Perversely, such laws cannot be challenged until someone is charged with violating it. “It’s terrifying,” says David Bederman, an Emory University law professor who tried unsuccessfully to challenge Georgia’s disparagement law. The judge ruled that he couldn’t dispute the law until he had a real dispute. But a real dispute could have far-reaching implications.

Currently, there are twelve states that have passed these laws and thirteen that have legislation pending. Critics charge that scientists might not study the effects of pesticides on foods—and that journalists and activists might not report on or discuss such concerns—thus leaving consumers in the dark.

COMMENTS: Helen Cordes, author of the article, “Watch Your Mouth,” says the topic had received little attention when she began tracking it in late 1994. When she pitched it to Utne Reader in early 1995, she had found only “a few obscure references” buried in the back of Texas daily newspapers. “By the time Utne Reader gave me the goahead,” Cordes notes, “I had heard nothing about it on network TV, and clips came only from environmental publications and one journalism magazine.

“Food safety is clearly an issue that affects everyone who eats, which is a pretty inclusive grouping. While I think that some people are generally aware that their food is grown using pesticides, preservatives, and genetically-altered genes, I don’t think most realize how dependent the food production system has become on these methods. If people realized (by reading/hearing about it) how `bad news’ about unsafe food is squelched, they would perhaps be moved to make different food choices, such as buying organic foods.

“The big food companies, which spend a lot of money advertising in mainstream media, want to keep this story quiet, along with agribusiness groups. Media outlets which profit from food ads don’t want to alienate those accounts.

“I believe there is good news and bad news on the topic of bringing people’s attention to food safety issues. First, the bad news—I think there’s a trend among many journalists/editors to downplay food safety concerns, as witnessed by the back lash against the ‘food police’ who critique the high fat in Americans’ diets a la movie popcorn and fast food. I fear that food, raised with topical pesticides, preservatives, or genetically altered methods will get the same ‘what’s the big deal?’ treatment.” [Cordes is referring to the Washington D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.]

The good news, says Cordes, is that “more people are voting with their feet by walking to the organic food section. More food producers will follow the money, and perhaps ultimately the same companies now decrying any criticism of conventional food will be singing the praises of organic food.”

Eric Nelson, award-winning writer with the Washington Free Press and author of the article, “Lettuce Libel,” says he saw no TV coverage of food disparagement laws, nor is he aware of coverage by any newsweeklies. “National papers, including USA Today and Washington Post did some coverage, but mainstream newspaper stories about state agricultural disparagement laws were relegated to the ‘Style’ or ‘Home’ sections. Most stories (mine included) attempted to exploit the humorous angle of `fruit slander’ or some other stupid pun.

Nelson believes “the general public needs to know that the food supply is not safe because of contamination and pesticides. Watchdog organizations such as the Pure Food Campaign and the Environmental Working Group are doing their best to raise this issue in the public and in the media. However, the threat of lawsuits against these organizations—even if based on unconstitutional disparagement laws-is an attempt to squelch public debate about the safety of what we eat. The mere threat of a lawsuit for speaking the truth will chill public debate about food safety, will diminish our First Amendment rights, and could endanger the survival of public interest groups if they are sued under these laws.

“The public needs to know that the vast majority of these laws would not pass constitutional muster because they effectively shift the burden of proof from the plaintiff to the defendant. Thus, an organization sued under many of these laws faces the presumption that its statements are false and ‘not based on reliable scientific data.’ Plus, the plaintiff in these actions need not show actual damages resulting from the statement, as is the case with most libel actions. In fact, the Pure Food Campaign notes that industry organizations have advised their members not to sue public interest groups under these laws, lest the laws themselves be found unconstitutional. Thus, the laws are meant to sit on the books and chill public speech by their mere existence.

“The public needs to know what industry organizations are sponsoring these food disparagement laws: the Produce Marketing Association is one such group. Another is the Animal Industry Foundation (AIF), a front group composed of meat producers, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Feed Industry Association, American Sheep Industry, American Society of Animal Science, American Veal Association, National Broiler Council, National Cattlemen’s Association, National Milk Producers Federation, National Pork Producers Council, National Turkey Federation, Southeastern Poultry & Egg Association, and United Egg Producers. These groups have even drafted a `model disparagement bill’ that states can use to draft their own laws.”

Elliott Negin, author of the Columbia Journalism Review article, “The Alar ‘Scare’ Was For Real,” says there are several aspects of this story the national media missed. “Although the news media made much of a lawsuit filed by Washington state apple growers against CBS’ 60 Minutes for a critical story the show did on Alar, there was next to no follow-up when the courts vindicated 60 Minutes. Nor have the national media paid attention to the ‘agricultural disparagement’ laws that have been passed in 12 states. These laws will have a chilling effect on journalists who write about food safety.

“Over the last seven years the news media have been citing the so-called Alar ‘scare’ as an example of misguided gov-ernment environmental regulation. This adds to the false perception that the government is too zealous in protecting the environment and is stifling the corporate sector by burdening it with regulations.

“The food processing and chemical industries have made the Alar controversy their Alamo. Since Alar was taken off the market, the two industries, working with high-priced public relations firms, have mounted disinformation campaigns against legitimate studies on the effect of pesticide-treated food on children. If these industries were forced to cut back their use of dangerous pesticides to better protect the public, I assume they fear their profits would suffer. Meanwhile farm workers and the public will continue to be exposed.”

Negin feels that since his piece appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, his “fellow journalists should now have a better understanding of how they’ve blown this story.” According to Negin, The New Republic and The Nation rejected query letters for the article before it appeared in CJR. He says Environmental Media Services, a non-profit public relations firm, has mailed the article to hundreds of journalists nationwide.


Sources: ON THE ISSUES Date: Fall 1996 Title: “The Anti-Abortion Stealth Campaign”; Author: Jennifer Gonnerman; FRONT LINES RESEARCH Date: October 1996, Title: “Storming Wombs and Waco: How the Anti-abortion and Militia Movements Converge,” Author: Sandi DuBowski

SSU Censored Researchers: Latrice Babers, Linda McCabe

At this point in the turbulent history of the debate over abortion, it seems that opponents can be separated into two groups: non-violent opponents and militants who will use intimidation and violence. While “standard” harassment of patients and clinic personnel through “sidewalk counseling” is fairly commonplace, violent actions are becoming increasingly common. These newer, confrontative practices have included attacks on clinics using butyric acid (a chemical that smells of rancid butter), death and bomb threats, kidnapping, arson, bombings, and murder. The National Abortion Federation has kept statistics on clinic violence since 1977 and the most recent data (current as of August 1, 1996) showed a cumulative total of 1,894 violent attacks reported on American clinics-including 157 in 1995.

According to researcher and journalist Sandi DuBowski, there is a well-documented connection between both the violent anti-abortion movement and so-called “militia” groups. This includes links between followers of the Christian Identity movement, the followers of the “Freemen” (and their anti-government ideology), the Ku Klux Klan, organized militias, the Gun Owners of America, the U.S. Taxpayers Party, militant anti-abortion groups such as Operation Rescue and the Missionaries to the Pre-born. One recent example is the conviction in July 1996 of three members of the Oklahoma Constitutional Militia (which included a Christian Identity “prophet” and his followers) for conspiring to blow up abortion clinics, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other civil rights targets.

One particularly aggressive and high-profile group is Human Life International (HLI), which systematically exports American-styled antiabortion tactics to other countries in attempts to remove access to safe, legal abortions for women worldwide. According to HLI, it has 68 branches in 56 countries on five continents. It conducts worldwide seminars and symposiums on abortion and morality-related topics.

According to the World Health Organization, unsafe abortions are one of the leading causes of the more than 500,000 maternal deaths occurring each year. Globally, more than 13 percent of pregnancy-related deaths are associated with unsafe abortions. This figure climbs to 50 percent in countries with restrictive abortion laws such as Latin American nations. Currently in the U.S., 84 percent of all counties lack access to surgical abortion-so even where abortion is legal it may not be easily accessible. Researchers who track these extremist groups caution that if such militant conspiracies spread on a global scale, there will undoubtedly be more women put into the desperate position of risking their lives or health in order to determine whether or when they bear children.

Additional source information: Human Life International, International Planned Parenthood Federation, National Abortion Federation, National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, National Organization for Women, and the World Health Organization

COMMENTS: According to Jennifer Gonnerman, author of “The Anti-Abortion Stealth Campaign,” Human Life International received virtually no exposure in the American mass media last year or in prior years. It is interesting to note, however, that this group has attracted some press attention in Canada, where pro-choice activists are outraged by the fact that this U.S.-funded group is crossing borders to recruit members.

“Wider [media] exposure of Human Life International would inform the public about the true nature of the battle over reproductive rights. Few people realize that the abortion battle is not just between Democrats and Republicans, but that it is raging well beyond America’s borders. Moreover, I think the public would be fascinated to find out how extensive the Catholic Church’s involvement is in HLI.

“The entire anti-choice movement benefits from this lack of media coverage because it keeps the public ignorant about how well-funded and strategically advanced they [HLI] are. Ignorant about the activities of Human Life International, many pro-choice people mistakenly believe the fight for reproductive rights is almost won.

“An example of how widespread (but unnoticed) HLI’s influence is popped up at this year’s Republican convention in San Diego. Flip Benham and other Operation Rescue leaders attracted the attention of 40 television cameras when they started waving gruesome, six-foot high pictures of fetuses. But while cameras focused on the fetuses, they missed the posters’ fine print, which showed that they had been manufactured by Human Life International. HLI’s ability to produce the anti-choice movement’s propaganda-buttons, books, bumper stickers, videotapes, plastic fetuses-without enduring scrutiny by the mainstream media allows it to flourish,” says Gonnerman.

Since her article was published, Human Life International moved into its new national headquarters in Virginia and increased its staff size, according to Gonnerman. “Meanwhile, the only exposure my story received after publication was some angry remarks on HLI’s Web site.”