Maybe you’re familiar with the concept of libel, that is, the notion that a person cannot write or publish false and disparaging information about you. That fundamental concept has different nuances and applications, including food libel. In a food libel case, someone publishes disparaging information about a company’s product to the detriment of that company’s profits.
Food libel laws were passed in response to a 1989 60 Minutes expose of a chemical called “Alar.” Alar was sprayed on apples to enhance their growth and color. The 60 Minutes report described the chemical as a dangerous carcinogen. The ensuing outcry drew attention to the apple-growing industry and led to the disputed chemical being removed from the market. Afterwards, a group of apple growers filed suit against CBS, alleging that they had lost over $100 million because of the report. A federal judge dismissed the suit, finding that the growers had failed to allege that CBS’s claims about Alar were false. The court’s holding also cited public policy, explaining that since the suit involved a matter of public concern, the network’s statements were protected.
In the wake of the apple growers’ failed suit, the agriculture industry persuaded several states to pass laws that would make it easier to prove product disparagement. In contrast to traditional libel law, which focuses on false statements, food libel laws may also impose liability for statements that merely imply that a product is not safe to consume.
Currently, thirteen states — Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas – have food libel laws. These laws have sometimes put farmers and manufacturers on a collision course with the media. In 1998, a group of ranchers famously sued Oprah Winfrey when she claimed that, because of the risk of mad cow disease, she would never eat another hamburger. Winfrey won that case, but more recently, Disney settled a food libel suit for nearly $200 million after one of its news subsidiaries reported on “pink slime” found in a company’s beef. In heightening protections for food producers, food libel laws may have a chilling effect on health and safety advocates and make it harder to obtain nutritional information.