Sometimes you see things in life that are so outrageous that it makes you want to become a vigilante to right the wrongs you see. This is a bad idea. Yes, there are laws that are morally wrong and unjust and just plain bad.
So what has me upset this time? Food disparagement laws. So if you don’t think the way food is produced on one of 13 states is safe, you can be sued for libel. Even if you back up your claims with scientific evidence it doesn’t matter. A person with little financial resources could be sued into ruination even if you are right. The purpose of these laws is to stifle free speech.
You cannot shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire, but what if you tell the audience the theatre would be a deathtrap if it caught on fire and it were true. Say like the fire exits were blocked. You should be a responsible adult and tell the management first, but what do you do if they refuse to do anything. Would the next step to tell the audience or call the fire marshal? I suppose it would depend on the immediacy of the threat. If you saw sparking wires or someone smoking then you would probably feel obligated to tell the audience, “Gee! I see sparking wires. By the way did you notice the fire exits were blocked?” However, you should also call the fire marshal.
What happens if the fire marshal determines that there is no cause for alarm and the exits are still blocked? And then you are threatened with a fine or arrest if you tell the audience? You might even be sued by the theatre owner for causing them to lose business.
This is analogous to the food disparagement laws. Here are the thirteen states that have them: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas. Of interest to me is the Oklahoma law which states:
§ 3011. Definitions
As used in this act, unless the context otherwise requires:
1. “Disparagement” means dissemination of information to the public in any manner [ emph. mine] which casts doubt on the safety of any perishable agricultural food product to the consuming public; and
That is a chilling statement: “in any manner”. So if you have any reservations or doubts, keep them to yourself. So if you tout that the beef you buy is grass-finished and better than CAFO produced beef is that casting doubt? Or if you tout you like milk better that has been produced by cattle that don’t use artificial hormones. I would say that is a choice made by an informed consumer.
The law also says:
§ 3012. Cause of action for damages
Any producer of perishable agricultural food products who suffers damages as a result of another person’s disparagement of any such perishable agricultural food product, when the disparagement is based on false information which is not based on reliable scientific facts and scientific data and which the disseminator knows or should have known to be false (emph. mine), may bring an action for damages and for any other appropriate relief in a court of competent jurisdiction.
I could say that grass-finished beef tastes better to me than CAFO raised beef. That is entirely subjective. How would I determine if facts and data are scientifically reliable? Is it enough to cite an article written by a journalist who cites peer reviewed journals and talks to informed scientists? Or do I have to go to the same sources? The bar seems awfully high.
This fight over food safety has been around for a long long time. Back in 1998, Texas cattlemen sued Oprah Winfrey regarding her statement that she’d not eat beef out of fear of BSE. She won.
Note: Draft originally written on 9 April 2009. I’m going through my old drafts to see if they are worth finishing and posting. This one made the cut.