Food producers go to court in effort to squelch bad press

Posted June 14, 2009, at 10:07 p.m.

This week’s topic deals with getting the most from the dollars you spend on food. How you — and others along the “food chain” — define “getting the most” will define your answer. And a just-released documentary may change your ideas about eating.

More than a dozen years ago, the Center for Media and Democracy, a public relations watchdog group, noted a troubling development. “Food disparagement laws” were enacted in several states, ostensibly to prevent libelous attacks that could harm large sectors of those states’ agricultural or food producing economies.

These statutes — now in 13 states, but not Maine — have come to be known as “veggie laws.” They hit the spotlight after the first outbreak of “mad cow” disease, when Oprah Winfrey wondered in front of a national audience why she would ever eat a hamburger again. When Howard Lyman of the Humane Society, a guest on the show, ventured the opinion that the effects of mad cow disease might rival or surpass the impact of AIDS, the beef industry came out swinging.

It sued Winfrey and Lyman, under laws passed with support from major segments of the food industry. Traditional product disparagement laws state basically that the defendant must have known statements he made about a product were false, that those statements would cause harm and that harm actually occurred.

The model “veggie law” makes it a crime to disseminate information that any perishable food is unfit for human consumption. The statement is considered libelous if it’s not based on scientific data, facts or inquiry.

All of which may help explain why Robert Kenner’s film, “Food, Inc.,” will not be on the Oscar nominee list of anyone associated with food production. Kenner argues that agribusiness is working overtime to keep consumers in the dark about what they eat, how it’s produced and what our food really costs us.

Kenner blames the handful of corporations that dominate the industry for much of what he says is wrong with our food chain. He takes issue with the engineering of many foods and the widespread promotion of quantity over quality. Kenner is especially critical of the role of corn in our unhealthy lifestyles.

Cows, he says, were designed to eat grass, not corn. When their health suffers from a corn-heavy diet, they are treated with antibiotics, passed along to humans through their meat. They may develop mutated strains of E. coli, which brings us back to the meat recall issue.

Kenner says he has spent big bucks on legal fees to get his movie before the public. It was released this weekend in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Kenner’s Web site says “Food, Inc.” will be shown at the Strand Theatre in Rockland starting July 10 and the Frontier Cafe in Brunswick July 17. We will be interested to see how it is received in coming months.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service lists seven recalls of meat so far in June alone. You can keep track of food recalls and get food safety information at www.recalls.gov/food.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or e-mail contacexdir@live.com.

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