In Oprah Trial, 'Food Libel' Charges Prove Hard to Swallow

If the Texas cattlemen suing Oprah Winfrey in an Amarillo courtroom counted on having the home-field advantage, they were sorely mistaken.

Yesterday, their lawsuit against Ms. Winfrey for her disparaging remarks of beef in a 1996 TV program ground to a halt, as a jury found the popular talk-show host not guilty of the libel charges against her.

While Winfrey's celebrity drew a veritable media circus, legal experts said the importance of this lawsuit was that it would provide the first test for so-called food-libel laws. Designed to protect perishable food products from disparagement or misinformation that could diminish their market value, food-libel laws have cropped up in 13 states around the country.

But after a few weeks of testimony, the federal judge ruled that the case did not fit the criteria for a food-libel trial, and Engler v. Winfrey continued as a simple case of business disparagement.

Even so, some legal experts say the Winfrey trial may have a powerful effect on food-disparagement cases in the future.

"I think this case will alert some would-be plaintiffs that ... the chances of their winning, which aren't good anyway, will be pretty low," says Scott Powe, a law professor at the University of Texas in Austin. "All the trade associations will know what happened, and they will understand their difficulties a little better."

Some legal experts predict that the decision in Amarillo - or "Oprahrillo," as one local magazine has taken to calling it - may not be the end of Winfrey's legal battles, nor may it be the final word on Texas's food-libel law.

"It isn't over," says Bruce Johnson, a Seattle lawyer who successfully defended the CBS News program "60 Minutes" after it broadcast a story on the health effects of apples sprayed with the chemical Alar. "The plaintiffs will appeal that decision [to drop the food-libel charges], and that will put the issue squarely in the hands of the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals."

Noted as a conservative bastion, the Fifth Circuit would seem to offer a sympathetic ear to the plight of multimillionaire cattle feeder Paul Engler and his fellow plaintiffs, who claim that the beef market took a dive the day after Winfrey's show aired. But Mr. Johnson says the food-libel case "cuts across the typical liberal and conservative line."

FOR the man who wrote Texas's food-libel law, the judge's decision to drop the food-libel charges was a disappointment but not entirely a surprise.

"It probably wasn't the best case to try this law out on," says state Rep. Bob Turner (D), who represents a large west Texas district full of cattle ranchers. "The best test case would have been if the meat packers themselves had filed suit, because then you're talking about an actual food product." Cattle raisers and feeders, he adds, can hold onto their cattle and wait for a better market, while meat packers can't.

Even though the food libel laws remain untested, cattle industry spokesmen say the new laws have already succeeded in sending a message to environmentalists and members of the news media,

"By and large, the trial brought out the issue of the need for facts and science when you're dealing with something as important as the safety of the nation's food supply," says Steve Kopperud, spokesman for the American Feed Industry Association in Alexandria, Va. "I think the general media understood that, and the American people heard that this trial was more about responsible speech than it was about the freedom of speech."

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