Watch your mouth!

New laws could gag critics of unsafe food

Over the past few years, outcries from food activists have changed many Americans' eating habits: Criticism of widespread pesticide use led many consumers to organic foods, and early warnings prompted shoppers to shun irradiated and genetically altered food.

But now angry agribusiness groups are fighting back. Major players, among them the American Farm Bureau Federation, have muscled "agricultural disparagement" laws through state legislatures. The statutes make it illegal to suggest that a particular food is unsafe without a "sound scientific basis" for the claim, reports Paul Rauber in Sierra (Nov./Dec. 1995). These so-called banana bills are on the books in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas, and are under consideration in California, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Washington.

Banana bill backers believe the laws will protect agricultural producers from losses like those following the Alar scare in 1989, when the TV magazine show 60 Minutes publicized a Natural Resources Defense Council report charging that the chemical, which enhances the appearance of apples, causes cancer. Overnight, tons of apples, applesauce, and apple juice became grocery shelf untouchables, and Washington apple growers lost $130 million, according to the Washington State Farm Bureau.

Florida proponents of banana bills point to the fate of Vindicator Inc., a Florida firm that opened the nation's first food irradiation facility and now is struggling to survive. Vindicator blamed activists' anti-irradiation publicity for its woes, and fearful farmers in the agribusiness-rich state teamed up to pass a banana bill with clout: Those found guilty of "agricultural disparagement" have to pay three times the estimated dollar amount of damage done to the ag interest plaintiffs.

Banana bill foes say the laws simply serve to stifle those who speak out against risky food -- produce with "acceptable" levels of pesticides, genetically altered tomatoes, milk from cows injected with the growth hormone rbST (recombinant bovine somatotropin), which boosts milk production. Even when a lawsuit against a food safety group fails, legal fees can bankrupt the group. In Safe Food News (Summer 1994), David Bederman, an ACLU attorney challenging Georgia's banana bill, predicts the laws will encourage "state-sanctioned SLAPP suits," new versions of the strategic lawsuits against public participation that corporations have been filing or threatening to file against critical groups since the mid-'80s.

Many journalists are also outraged about banana bills, calling them an affront to free speech and an impediment to covering critical food safety issues, notes Nicols Fox in American Journalism Review (March 1995). Most critics question the laws' requirement that only charges based on "reasonable and reliable" evidence be allowed. Who determines what's "reasonable"? After all, it's unlikely that agribusinesses will accept even the best evidence if it threatens their bottom line. Fox notes that even though the Environmental Protection Agency -- not exactly a devil-may-care outfit -- affirmed that Alar posed unacceptable health risks, Washington State Farm Bureau spokesperson Peter Stemberg insists that EPA's science is "subject to second opinion."

Stemberg's statement, ironically enough, makes the ideal argument against banana bills. Thalidomide, DDT, and other toxic "innovations" were originally endorsed by the best scientific minds. Thanks to the "second opinions" of food safety, environmental, and health groups -- opinions that challenged accepted wisdom -- the nation's health has doubtless been improved.

Instead of attacking what they deride as "junk science," food producers should be listening to the public's food worries, says Sierra's Rauber, who cites a recent Young & Rubicam poll that found that 4 out of 5 Americans are "very concerned about food safety." Many agribusinesses seem more interested in keeping consumers in the dark about what they're eating than in exploring ways to produce safe food. A case in point is rbST maker Monsanto, who fought (and eventually lost) a battle to keep dairy producers from advertising that their milk came from rbST-free cows.

If you are concerned about state banana bills, and about the food industry's efforts to have similar laws included in the 1995 federal farm bill, Rauber suggests that you contact state and federal officials and activist groups such as the Environmental Working Group. And Dr. Wally Burnstein, founder of the food-safety group Food & Water Inc., recommends turning the tables: Activists can work for new laws that forbid corporate and government officials to make false safety claims about dangerous products.

-- Helen Cordes Utne Reader Jan.-Feb. 1996


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