Oprah Sued Over Right To
Discuss Mad Cow On TV
CHICAGO (AP) - Although mad cow disease has never been documented in the United States, Oprah Winfrey says she had every right to speculate on her show about the possibility of an outbreak here.
Texas cattlemen disagree, and on Tuesday pretrial hearings begin in a lawsuit charging that Ms. Winfrey defamed an entire industry when the disease was made fodder for her talk show.
Cattlemen claim they lost millions of dollars because of the show. Oprah, her Harpo Productions Inc. and distributor King World Productions say the show was only keeping the public informed.
``I maintain my right to ask questions and to hold a public debate on issues that impact the general public and my audience,'' Ms. Winfrey said in a statement shortly after the show aired.
Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a brain-destroying disease that has ravaged cattle in Britain since the late 1980s.
It is believed to have been spread by cattle feed containing ground-up sheep parts, but it was not until 1996 that British scientists announced that humans may have contracted the disease by eating diseased beef.
Enter Oprah.
During an ``Oprah Winfrey Show'' broadcast in April 1996, a guest said that feeding ground-up animal parts to cattle, which was being done at the time, could spread the disease to humans in the United States.
To applause from the studio audience, Ms. Winfrey exclaimed: ``It has just stopped me from eating another burger!''
Cattle prices began to fall the day of the show and fell for two weeks before rising again.
Amarillo cattle feeder Paul Engler was livid.
No case has ever been reported in the United States, although eating meat from cattle tainted by the disease is believed to have killed at least 20 people overseas, mostly in Britain.
Engler, who said he lost $6.7 million because of the show, sued along with a dozen cattlemen under a 1995 Texas law that protects agricultural products from slander.
The federal lawsuit appears to be the biggest test yet of so-called ``veggie libel'' laws, which sprouted after a ``60 Minutes'' report in 1989 on the growth regulator Alar sent apple prices plummeting. Since then, 13 states have passed laws against falsely disparaging products.
Ms. Winfrey's show came at a time when drought, high feed prices and oversupply were crippling cattlemen.
England and Europe have been dealing with mad cow disease for several years, and the United States has been keeping an eye on the situation.
In 1989, the United States banned imports of beef products from England because of the disease, but meat imports from continental Europe were allowed to continue.
Last June the United States banned the feeding of most animal parts to cattle, and in December imports of cattle and sheep from Europe were banned.
But slaughtered animal parts can still be fed to pigs, chicken, fish, pets and other animals in the United States, and those animals in turn can be processed into feed for cows.
Dairy producer Bruce Krug of upstate New York believes the government and the beef industry need to stop the practice.
``We've got a potential disaster on our hands if we continue feeding animals back to animals,'' said Krug, who keeps 120 head of cattle in Constableville, about 40 miles north of Utica.
AP-NY-01-04-98 1859EST

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