Food libel laws, also known as food disparagement laws and informally as veggie libel laws, are laws passed in thirteen U.S. states that make it easier for food producers to sue their critics for libel. These thirteen states are Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas. Many of the food-disparagement laws establish a lower standard for civil liability and allow for punitive damages and attorney's fees for plaintiffs alone, regardless of the case's outcome.
These laws vary significantly from state to state, but food libel laws typically allow a food manufacturer or processor to sue a person or group who makes disparaging comments about their food products. In some states these laws also establish different standards of proof than are used in traditional American libel lawsuits, including the practice of placing the burden of proof on the party being sued.
In 1998, television talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and one of her guests, Howard Lyman, were involved in a lawsuit, commonly referred to as the Amarillo Texas beef trial, surrounding the Texas version of a food libel law known as the False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act of 1995, for a 1996 episode of her show in which the two made disparaging comments about beef in relation to mad cow disease. Although they were not the first people to be sued using this type of legal action, this case created a media sensation.
In a normal U.S. libel suit, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant is deliberately and knowingly spreading false information. Under the Texas food disparagement law under which Winfrey and Lyman were sued, the plaintiffs — in this case, beef feedlot operator Paul Engler and the company Cactus Feeders — had to convince the jury that Lyman's statements on Winfrey's show were not "based on reasonable and reliable scientific inquiry, facts, or data." As a basis for the damages sought in the lawsuit, the plaintiffs noted that cattle futures dropped 10 percent the day after the episode, and that beef prices fell from 62 cents to 55 cents per pound. Engler's attorneys argued that the rancher lost $6.7 million, and the plaintiffs sought to recoup total losses of more than $12 million.
The jury in the case found that the statements by Winfrey and Lyman did not constitute libel against the cattlemen. However, Winfrey no longer speaks publicly on the issue, going so far as to decline to make videotapes of the original interview available to enquiring journalists.
A long-running legal case in Britain is an example of the application of food libel principles to existing law. McDonald's Restaurants versus Morris & Steel (also known as the "McLibel case") was an English lawsuit filed by McDonald's Corporation against environmental activists Helen Steel and David Morris (often referred to as "The McLibel Two") over a pamphlet critical of the company. The original case lasted ten years, making it the longest-running court action in English history. A feature-length documentary film, McLibel, was created about the case by filmmaker Franny Armstrong.
Although McDonald's won two hearings of the case in English court, the partial nature of the victory, the David-vs-Goliath nature of the case, and the drawn-out litigation embarrassed the company. McDonald's announced that it did not plan to collect the £40,000 that it was awarded by the courts. Since then, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that the trial violated Articles 6 (right to a fair trial) because the defendants had been refused legal aid and had only been represented by volunteer lawyers, and Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) of the Convention on Human Rights, again because the defendants had been refused legal aid, and awarded a judgment of £57,000 against the UK government. (McDonald's itself was not a defendant in this appeal.) On February 15, 2005, the pair's 20-year battle with McDonald's came to an end with this judgment.