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Missouri cattle producers watch Oprah trial in Texas

February 13, 1998
By: David Lehman
MDN Columbia Bureau

A cattle producer from Madison, Missouri, didn't usually watch Oprah. But after knee surgery two years ago, Earl Burton remembers watching The Oprah Winfrey Show that dealt with mad cow disease.

The executive director of the Humane Society discussed the practice of grinding up cows and feeding them back to other cows. Howard Lyman suspects this causes mad cow disease and that an outbreak in the U.S. would make aids look like the common cold. Oprah said she would never eat another hamburger.

Burton recalls, "I just turned it off I got so disgusted."

A group of Texas cattle ranchers filed a ten-point-three million dollar lawsuit against Oprah and her guest, claiming that comments made on her show caused cattle prices to fall.

The trial started recently in Amarillo, Texas. Oprah moved her show for the duration of the trial.

Thirteen other states have laws similar to the one in Texas. Missouri, however, is not one of them --- not yet, anyway.

State Representative Sam Leake is a Center, Missouri Democrat representing Burton's district. He recently filed House bill 923 that would protect agricultural producers from any person who makes a false statement about an agricultural product.

Representative Leake, who also is a farmer, says, "Those of us in this business have a right to protect our business."

Burton supports Representative Leake's bill and believes producers need this additional protection. "I'm disgusted," says Burton, "to think that someone in the public eye would grab a hold of this issue. She [Oprah] does have a lot of influence and people think everything they say is the truth."

Ken Midkiff, Missouri Sierra Club director, opposes this bill. He contends it would stifle free speech. Midkiff says, "Industrial ag operations can't take criticism, so they want to make it illegal."

He calls Representative Leake's bill the "food Nazi act."

The American Civil Liberties Union also opposes these food disparagement laws. Steven Shapiro is the ACLU's legal director. He says, "These so-called veggie libel laws raise obvious first amendment problems and threaten to chill speech on important issues of public concern." Shapiro says many people will simply refrain from speaking under the threat of a lawsuit.

The national organization representing cattle producers isn't saying anything about this issue right now. Charles Schroeder serves as the executive director of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association in Englewood, Colorado. He says he can't comment on the Oprah Winfrey case because of a gag order imposed by a federal judge in December.

In court testimony, Oprah says her 20 million viewers are intelligent enough to make up their own minds about beef. A jury will soon decide who is right.