Top TV talents including Oprah Winfrey have been hit with food libel lawsuits, otherwise known as “ag-gag” or “veggie libel” lawsuits. Most of these claims fail, but they are expensive to fight. Here’s a look at some recent food lawsuits.
ABC News was sued in South Dakota and accused of violating an ag-gag law that bans purposely publishing false “disparagement” of any perishable “food product of agriculture” or “health practices with livestock.”
ABC News was sued over its 2012 report saying that a processed beef byproduct called “lean finely textured beef” is really processed beef trimmings. ABC reported that the processed beef has been dubbed “pink slime” by a former government scientist.
The trial pits Beef Products, Inc. against ABC News. Sawyer has been dismissed from the suit, and the case is currently in trial.
Winfrey said on her show in 1996 that an expert’s concerns about beef safety “just stopped me cold” from eating another burger.
Winfrey was sued in Texas by ranchers who accusing her of defamation and violating the Texas False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act.
The ranchers claimed they suffered $12 million in lost business after Oprah’s segment “Dangerous Food” examined the potential of mad cow disease to infect U. S. cattle.
The jury and a Texas appeals court sided with Winfrey, ruling that Winfrey did not violate the ag-gag law because she did not purposely publish false facts about Texas cattle.
But Winfrey spent an estimated $1 million in legal fees for the trial and defeating the ranchers’ appeal.
After winning, Oprah declared, “Free speech not only lives, it rocks.”
Perhaps the first food libel lawsuit was brought by McDonald’s in 1994 against two vegetarian activists accused of defaming the fast-food chain in London. It was dubbed the McLibel case.
The activists, David Morris and Helen Steel, were sued for handling out leaflets accusing McDonald’s of paying low wages, selling cancer-causing food, and buying products from vendors engaging animal cruelty.
The two activists could not prove the truth of all their claims, and were ordered to pay nearly $100,000 to McDonald’s.
The pair refused to pay. McDonald’s eventually dropped its case.
A 79-year-old New Mexico woman sued McDonald’s after she was hospitalized for eight days with severe burns caused by spilling hot coffee onto her lap.
Stella Liebeck claimed that McDonald’s was responsible for her injuries because it had received other claims from customers who suffered similar burns from the coffee, but did nothing about it.
McDonald’s said it did nothing wrong.
McDonald’s coffee was heated to 180 degrees, while home-brewed coffee is typically 135-140 degrees.
Liebeck said she was burned on her thighs, buttocks, groin and genital area and needed skin grafts.
McDonald’s has reduced the temperature of its coffee to 150 degrees.
Chicken or Soy?
Earlier this year, Subway sued Canadian Broadcasting Company over its 2017 report that the world’s largest fast-food chain put soy filler in its chicken sandwiches.
Subway called CBC’s report a “misrepresentation” and sued CBC, accusing the network of defamation.
Before filing the lawsuit, the chain said it would seek $210 million in damages. The case is pending.
A is for Alar
CBS was sued over its 1998 “Sixty Minutes” report that Alar, a chemical sprayed on apples, increased the risk of cancer for consumers, particularly in children.
Apple growers sued CBS, claiming the report cost them millions of dollar in lost apple sales. CBS stood behind its report.
A federal judge dismissed the apple growers’ case, saying CBS relied on a government report and that the apple growers failed to show the news report was false.
After the lawsuit and public outcry, the manufacturer of Alar pulled the chemical from the U.S. market.
More food lawsuits are expected now that it is a felony in many states to covertly film inside animal and agriculture facilities and air the footage.
But future prosecutions may be in question. In 2015, an Idaho judge struck down that state’s criminal filming law, ruling that the ban violates the First Amendment protection for free speech.
Other states’ illegal filming laws are being challenged in court.