In 1996, television talk-show hostess Oprah Winfrey and one of her guests, Howard Lyman, were involved in a famous lawsuit surrounding the Texas version of this law. Although they were not the first people to be sued using this type of legal action, this case created a media sensation and is the example most people associate with food libel litigation.
These laws vary greatly from state to state, but they typically allow a food manufacturer or processor to sue a person or group who makes disparaging comments about their food products. In some states these laws also establish weaker standards of proof than are used in traditional American libel lawsuits.
In a normal U.S. libel suit, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant is deliberately and knowingly spreading false information. Under the Texas food disparagement law under which Winfrey and Lyman were sued, the plaintiffs — in this case, beef feedlot operator Paul Engler and the company Cactus Feeders — simply had to convince the jury that Lyman's statements on Winfrey's show deviated from "reasonable and reliable scientific inquiry, facts, or data."
One obvious trouble with such a law is that two reasonable, reliable scientists may not always agree. The subject that Engler and Cactus Feeders were suing Winfrey and Lyman over was BSE, which has seen respected, reliable researchers reach quite different conclusions. Such a law partially shifts the burden of proof from the accuser.
Winfrey and Lyman won their case in 1998. However, the lawsuit also had the effect of silencing Winfrey. She stopped speaking on the issue, going so far as to decline to make videotapes of the original interview available to enquiring journalists.
Proponents of food disparagement laws often cite the Alar "scare" as proof of the necessity of such laws, as farmers' protection against a loose-lipped public. In the Alar incident, a CBS report on a carcinogenic but widely used apple agrichemical led to a brief slump in the apple market and a ban on the chemical. Apple growers subsequently sued CBS under existing libel laws and lost. "Never again — not another Alar" became a rallying cry for the food industry.