Laws Fight Back Against Veggie Hate CrimesBy Sherry Kiesling
It's been seven years since CBS' 60 Minutes sounded a false alarm regarding Alar. The chemical pesticide, used to keep apples red and crisp in the grocery store, was linked to cancer, according to claims broadcast by CBS. The resulting headlines scared hundreds of thousands of parents who stopped sending an apple with their kids' lunch and prompted school cafeterias to quit serving apple juice.
Yet, it seemed almost a footnote in history when the Supreme Court refused last month to hear an appeal of a case brought by apple growers against CBS for its dubious reporting and unproven claims about the dangers of Alar.
In the years between, apple growers lost untold millions. Many went out of business, unable to cope with the losses brought on by the Alar scare. But now they and other ag producers are fighting back.
They're leading an effort to pass anti-disparagement laws in state legislatures. Also known as "veggie libel", these laws put agriculture products on an equal footing with other commodities, protecting them from false, negative claims.
Name brand products are protected from libel by trademark laws. Even individuals can protect themselves under libel and slander laws. But generic products, like fruits, vegetables and meat don't have that same protection under the law.
The problem is made even more pronounced when those products are perishable. Producers can't store them in a warehouse while they try to prove that negative claims are untrue. American Farm Bureau governmental relations specialist John Keeling has likened these false food claims to the 1st amendment equivalent of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater.
Critics of anti-disparagement laws say the threat offered by these statutes will keep scientists from studying the effects of pesticides or prevent journalists from reporting those potential dangers. But supporters, including the American Farm Bureau, argue that veggie libel laws are not designed to go after people with legitimate criticism of foods. They're simply designed to ensure that those claims are based on sound science and to give producers legal recourse if the claims are proven to be untrue.
The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group is a vocal opponent of anti disparagement laws. Not surprising since that same group is responsible for some of the most irresponsible information provided to the media regarding food safety and pesticide use. An EWG analyst quoted in the Los Angeles Times said, "The veggie laws basically say you cannot say anything that is knowingly false about a perishable food item."
Who could argue with that premise? A critic can't say something knowingly false about name brand products, corporations or individuals. Why shouldn't farmers be afforded that same protection? For Washington state apple growers, the anti-disparagement laws are too little, too late. But for American agriculture, they represent the first step toward giving farmers equal redress under the law.
Sherry Kiesling is a writer/producer in the broadcast services department of the American Farm Bureau Federation.