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Food for Thought: Vegetable Hate Crimes

Watch your mouth: dis a cabbage, go to jail.

by Paul Rauber

If you don't have anything good to say about fruits and vegetables, friends, you had better not say anything at all, or else the produce industry will sue you for every penny you're worth. If this sounds like a joke, you must not come from any of the 11 states that have passed "food disparagement" laws, which make it a crime to criticize agricultural products without a "sound scientific basis." Vegetable-libel laws are exceedingly vague on what constitutes sound science, however; their intent is that you'll decide to play it safe and keep your mouth shut.

As the American food supply becomes increasingly processed and engineered, popular anxiety about its safety is mounting. A recent poll by the advertising firm of Young & Rubic am, for example, found that four out of five Americans are "very concerned about food safety." At the same time, industry attempts to introduce irradiated or genetically engineered foods have been hugely unpopular, to the extent that such foods can only make their way onto the market if unlabeled. While the Food and Drug Administration has approved many of these products (like milk from cows treated with Monsanto's recombinant bovine growth hormone, or Calgene's genetically a ltered tomato), environmental- and food-safety organizations persist in raising nagging doubts. The food industry has concluded that the only way to win public acceptance is to force its critics to shut up.

The result is that in many states it is now easier to defame a tomato than a human. Unlike traditional libel, veggie-slander doesn't necessarily have to be motivated by malice, or even be false. In the bill currently under consideration in Illinois, for example, you could be sued for any statement that "tends to lower the agricultural producer or product in the estimation of the community."

Isn't it, well, unconstitutional to restrict what people can talk about? Of course. But when the Georgia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union tried to get a state court of appeals ruling to that effect, it was told that it would have to wait until some poor soul got sued under the statute. That may take some time. David Bederman, acting for the Georgia ACLU on behalf of two grassroots food-safety groups, claims that those pushing these laws are in no hurry to put vegetable hate crimes to the test. "The Farm Bureau wants these laws on the books to intimidate people," he says, "especially small grassroots organizations."

The guardians of vegetal virtue claim their laws are aimed not at individuals or small fry, but at large environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council. It was, after all, the NRDC's 1989 report on Alar, a spray widely used to delay the ripening of apples, that sparked the current attempts to squash the First Amendment.

Alar is the nightmare from which the food industry cannot awake. Following the NRDC report and a subsequent segment on CBS's 60 Minutes, millions of consumer s rejected apples and apple products tainted with the carcinogenic spray. Washington apple growers, who had stubbornly resisted previous attempts to ban Alar, suddenly began begging its manufacturer, Uniroyal, to take it off the market. Rather than eat its losses, however, the apple industry sought revenge, suing NRDC and CBS for $200 million for (among other things) product disparagement. While NRDC was dropped from the case early on, and a federal district court ruled in favor of CBS, the growers appealed to the Ninth Circuit, where a final ruling is pending.

Sadly, the lesson the food industry drew from the affair was not that the public didn't want to risk cancer for the sake of a useless food additive, but that the media and environmental groups, in publicizing the (admittedly small) risks, were disseminating "junk science"-a view that has now attained the status of conventional wisdom. "When faced with potentially damaging news about pesticide residues," reports the Los Angeles Times, "the food industry's rally ing cry has been ÔRemember Alar.' "

Actually, even after the brouhaha, a scientific peer review by the Environmental Protection Agency concluded-as had two committees previously-that Alar was a probable human carcinogen. The apple growers, however, don't even presume the EPA to have a "sound scientific basis." Even quoting an official government study, in their view, is product disparagement.

In the end, it isn't "junk science" that concerns the food industry, but any science that questions the safety of their product. "One of the goals of the whole [Alar revisionism] campaign was to intimidate," says Al Meyerhoff, a senior attorney with NRDC. "These food disparagement bills being enacted in different parts of the country are unconstitutional on their face-but that doesn't mean they won't have a chilling effect."

First you start tinkering with tomato genes, and the next thing you know you're tinkering with the First Amendment. No food process is worth it if it comes at the cost of free speech.

Residents of states that already have food disparagement laws on the books (Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas) or in the works (California, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Washington) should give their state legislators a piece of their minds. Your national representatives need to hear from you too, since the food industry is trying to get anti-disparagement provisions included in the 1995 Farm Bill. (For addresses, see "Ecoregion Roundup".)

To learn more about food safety, contact the Pure Food Campaign, 1660 L St., N.W., Suite 216, Washington, D.C. 20036; (800) 253-0681; e-mail:

Another invaluable resource is the Environmental Working Group, 1718 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20009; (202) 667-6982; e-mail: See especially their reports Pesticides in Baby Food ($13), Pesticide PACs: Campaign Contributions and Pesticide Policy ($13), and Forbidden Fruit: Illegal Pesticides in the U.S. Food Supply ($23). Many of EWG's publications are available free on the World Wide Web.

Green Plate Special: Alar-Free Applesauce

More satisfaction for your trouble, perhaps, than anything else you can cook.

Peel, core, and slice some apples. Place in a saucepan with a small amount of water. Cook for three minutes or until soft. Mash. Add lemon juice or cinnamon to taste.

When your guests ask for the recipe, smile mysteriously.

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