Oprah Winfrey and mad cows

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This article was first published as "One Hundred Percent All Beef Baloney: Lessons from the Oprah Trial", PR Watch, volume 3, number 1, First Quarter 1996. The original article was authored by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

Oprah Winfrey and mad cows

If you're trying to make sense of the recent "food disparagement" lawsuit by Texas beef producers against Oprah Winfrey, it might help to remember Connie Grieg's moment of terror on the evening of April 23, 1996.

The date was one week after the now-famous program in which Oprah had allowed a debate between Gary Weber of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) and vegetarian activist Howard Lyman.[1] Lyman had easily won the argument, horrifying Oprah and her audience with vivid details about cannibalistic animal-feeding practices and their link to England's outbreak of mad cow disease. Angry, the cattlemen had responded by pulling $600,000 dollars in advertising from Oprah's network and were already threatening legal action.

Under pressure, Oprah had taken the extraordinary step of inviting the cattlemen to make a second appearance, this time all by themselves. Weber would come back for a second time, and Connie Grieg -- an Iowa cattle producer -- would join him.

"This time, we agreed to a live show with no editing. Oprah also agreed not to have an opposing viewpoint," Grieg explained to Beef magazine, an industry trade publication.

The program itself went smoothly, exactly as planned. Weber reprised his role as "expert," while Oprah muttered apologies through what seemed like gritted teeth. Grieg, who had received intensive media training plus two hours of coaching the night before from NCBA staffers, played the role of a safety-conscious, lovable family farmer.

The moment of terror, when it came, did not occur on the Oprah show. It came later that evening, when Grieg celebrated by taking the family out to eat at a seafood restaurant. "We walked in, the hostess looked at us and asked: 'Hey, weren't you on 'Oprah' today?'" Grieg said. "I started to stammer."

She had been caught, she realized. Caught, in public--eating seafood.

After an awkward moment, Grieg managed to regain her composure and "explained that we eat beef every day and just felt like a change."

Of course, no one really eats beef every day, not even a dedicated propagandist for the NCBA. Grieg's hastily-improvised cover story speaks volumes, however, about the beef industry's preoccupation with image over substance and its fantasy-view of American eating habits.

Whatever was said about mad cow disease on the Oprah show, the most terrifying moment for the industry came when Oprah said that she had been "stopped cold from eating another burger." This surfaced clearly during the trial when Bill O'Brien, head of the Texas Cattle Producers, explained on the witness stand why Oprah's follow-up show with Weber and Grieg was "too little, too late" to atone for the first show.

"I don't think it repaired the damage," O'Brien said. "She didn't go on the program and eat a hamburger before the world."

From this perspective, the dangers specific to mad cow disease, or for that matter Howard Lyman's description of animal-feeding practices -- or, for that matter, the First Amendment -- are mere details to be swatted away like flies, an attitude which shows through repeatedly in the beef industry's handling of the PR problems posed by the Oprah trial.

With respect to the issue of mad cow disease itself, the cattlemen pursued a strategy of simple evasion. Their message to the media was that they were willing to discuss the question of whether the trial infringed upon the First Amendment, but they did not want to be dragged into a discussion of whether mad cow disease (known technically as "bovine spongiform encephalopathy" or BSE) posed any problems in the United States.

In his eagerness to avoid the subject, NCBA president-elect Clark Winningham even claimed on January 9, 1998 that he was under court order not to comment about the Oprah trial. "Wish I could," he said.

Three days later, Winningham lifted his self-imposed gag order and spoke freely to reporters. "Our fear is that the trial revives the issue of BSE in the minds of the consumer again," he said. "The fact that she is moving the show has become a news item, and it will give her a lot of free publicity, but that hurts us because mad cow disease gets pushed out in the headlines again."

The Myth of the Oprah Cult

A sexist subtext ran through discussions of the Oprah trial. In Amarillo, bumper stickers and T-shirts sported the slogan, "The only mad cow in America is Oprah."

A common theme in discussions of the Oprah program was the notion that Oprah's popularity gave her some kind of improper influence over the mindless female multitudes that constitute her audience. As evidence of her hypnotic powers, commentators noted that an endorsement by Oprah's book club can frequently propel an author to the top of the bestseller list.

One caller to KGNC, an Amarillo radio talk show, described Oprah's audience as "the uneducated portion of our population" and hoped the cattle feeders would "get Oprah for every penny. . . . They are not looking for money, but they can build war chests to get after other people that pull this stuff."

Winfrey "should have her mouth taped," opined one commentatator, because "she's on national television speaking to all those who have nothing more to do than listen to her and accepting her words as the gospel."

"A video of the Oprah segment suggests the lynch-mob character of TV talk shows," commented Accuracy in Media, Reed Irvine's right-wing think-tank. "Audiences are made up of persons who know nothing other than the canned story fed to them by the host or hostess." AIM complained that more than 70% of Oprah's "vast afternoon audience . . . are women, who do the bulk of grocery shopping in America."

Will Hueston, the USDA official who appeared on Oprah's mad cow segment, used similar language during his courtroom testimony, complaining of a "lynch mob mentality" because he had heard people in the studio audience whispering that "You can't trust the government."

(In one of the most bizarre moments of the trial, Winfrey's attorney reminded Hueston that "lynch mob" was a term referring to the use of clubs, nooses and torches against black slaves. Under cross-examination, Hueston burst into tears, apologized to Winfrey, and attempted to portray himself as a civil rights worker who had been persecuted as a child for having black friends.)

Bill Maher, host of the "Politically Incorrect" talk show, added another sexist touch by speculating about whether the success of Oprah's book endorsements proves that women are more "sheeplike" than men. Ironically, his comment came after the media's lemming-like, single-minded obsession with President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky had virtually eliminated any further news coverage of the Oprah trial.

Actually, anyone who bothered to examine Winfrey's book club would find a very different picture. Many observers have noted that her book selections are of consistently high caliber, and her readers are a far cry from the stereotype of dumb housewives who hang on Oprah's every word. Some of them have formed an internet-based reading club, which features literate, independent-minded discussions of the books and their authors. While Oprah was on trial in Texas, members of the group in fact were busily airing some blunt criticisms of her recent book selections.

"With so many other wonderful authors out there, it would really be a disappointment to me if she went with a second Morrison book, no matter how good it is," commented one reader. "It's great that some people who may never have read Morrison did so when Song of Solomon was the choice. But now it's like Oprah's pushing her down people's throats. . . . This will be the second month in a row I have personally questioned her choices."

"Sounds as if it's going to be A-OK to delete the 'Oprah' from the club title," added another. "Also sounding as if we are generally unhappy with recent Oprah picks. Maybe after a few more of her 'non-picks' we can just pick our own."

Did Oprah Cause Cattle Prices to Fall?

It is worth noting that the fall in cattle futures occurred on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, not in grocery stores. There is no evidence suggesting that consumer beef-buying habits even flickered as a result of the Oprah show. The people who "panicked" were not gaga housewives with curlers in their hair. If we want to deal in stereotypes, they were cellphone-toting, BMW-driving, yuppie commodity traders.

The Oprah show on mad cow disease came at a time when drought, high feed prices and oversupply were crippling cattlemen. It also came less than a month after the British government reversed a decade of denial and publicly admitted for the first time that contaminated beef was the "most likely explanation" for 10 human deaths from a disease that has come to be called "new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease."

The Oprah show's impact on beef prices therefore cannot be easily separated from a series of other factors, including the impact of other mad cow-related news coverage. Tim Brennan, a futures trader who testified against Oprah during the trial, admitted in fact that he placed his "sell" order before he had even seen the show, based solely on the fact that mad cow disease would be discussed at all.

"You think Oprah ought to pay $10 million because you thought what she said would stop housewives from buying hamburgers?" asked defense lawyer Charles Babcock.

"This is true," Brennan replied.

The True Enemy of Small Farmers

In their conflict with Oprah Winfrey, representatives of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association have attempted to portray themselves as "beleaguered family farmers" in a David vs. Goliath struggle against a powerful "media mogul."

Connie Grieg's appearance on the Oprah show, for example, was calculated to stress the "family farmer" theme. "I told them that our family didn't want to bring a new disease into our herd. We eat beef every day and want to keep it safe, too," Grieg said. "I think it helped that my son Joe and his wife, Jodie, were along for support. The audience could see that my family was there with me, and it showed family involvement in the operation."

In reality, the greatest irony in the Oprah trial is that the people suing Winfrey are themselves beneficiaries of a commodities trading system that has destroyed the livelihoods of many family farms.

Amarillo rancher Paul Engler, the lead plaintiff, is the world's largest cattle feedlot operator. His $650 million a year in sales has made him even richer than Oprah. He has been associated throughout his career with Iowa Beef Processors (now renamed as IBP Ltd.), a major beef supplier that has been investigated or prosecuted repeatedly for price-fixing and monopoly practices.

"Paul Engler as 'grandfather' of the formula pricing system in the cattle industry is no friend of the true cattle producer for what he has done to our pricing and production system," observes a cattleman quoted by A.V. Krebs, a long-time analyst of agricultural economics and author of Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness.

"Formula pricing," along with terms like "captive supplies" and "forward contracting," are phrases seldom heard or understood outside the meat industry. They refer to a cattle-buying system which pushes the envelope of legal activity and, for all practical purposes, amounts to monopoly price-fixing.

"Captive supplies" are cattle which are fed by meatpackers themselves or contracted from closely-allied sources like Engler. By keeping their packing plants full for days or weeks with captive supplies, meatpackers are able to force down the market price of cattle by simply not buying for long periods. This in turn enables them to "forward contract" for future purchases at "formula prices" which they dictate, again undercutting the open market.

These artificial price manipulations also provide system insiders like Engler with advance information about price fluctuations, enabling them to reap additional profits through market speculation in cattle futures.

During the month in which Oprah's controversial mad cow program aired, Engler was in fact the largest supplier of "captive supplies" to IBP Ltd. His role in keeping the market artificially low was dramatically illustrated on May 2, 1996, when IBP's sources of captive supplies ran out of inventory. In a matter of two hours, prices surged upward from $54 to $60 per hundredweight.

As Krebs observes, "This is not simply a case of a television talk show host pitted against a beset-upon cowboy with the white hat battling for 'truth, justice and the American way,' but one of corporate agribusiness's very own seeking to improve nothing more than his own 'bottom line.' "

Was the Oprah Program Fair?

Both in court and in the media, the NCBA sought to show that Oprah Winfrey deliberately aired false, sensationalized claims about food safety in order to boost ratings. Accuracy in Media described her as a "mistress of manipulation" whose mad cow segment "is a good illustration of how a TV show can hide falsity behind a facade of objectivity."

NCBA's Gary Weber, who appeared on Oprah's mad cow segment, told AIM that two of his most important statements on the Oprah show were edited out before the program aired: (1) "that the cattle industry adopted a voluntary ban on 'recycling' felled cattle as feed on March 29, 1996"; and (2) "that what is fed to cattle is not 'ground up' beef, as Lyman claimed, but a foodstuff that has been cooked at temperatures high enough to sterilize it."

It is true that Weber's mention of the "voluntary ban" did not make the final cut. As we document in Mad Cow USA, however, there is no reason to believe that the "voluntary ban" had any impact whatsoever on industry feeding practices. Aside from the fact that a "voluntary ban" is a contradiction in terms, Mad Cow USA quotes agricultural extension agents and feed salesmen who confirm that the practice of feeding rendered cattle back to cattle continued, and may even have increased, after the voluntary ban was declared.

And Weber's claim that rendered feed "has been cooked at temperatures high enough to sterilize it" can only be characterized as deliberately misleading. As Weber well knows, the infectious agent that causes mad cow disease is extraordinarily resistant to high temperatures and is capable of remaining infective even when heated to 720 degrees fahrenheit--more than twice the temperature used to "cook" rendered animal feed. Its ability to survive the rendering process is precisely what enabled mad cow disease to grow to epidemic levels in the British cattle population.

As evidence of the Oprah program's "sensationalistic" exaggerations, commentators frequently pointed to vegetarian activist Howard Lyman's claim that mad cow disease "could make AIDS look like the common cold."

But consider the context in which the show aired on April 16, 1996. Less than a month earlier, the British government had abruptly reversed a decade of denial by announcing that people were dying from a new variant strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, and that mad cow disease was the most likely cause. The scientist who headed the U.K. government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, James Pattison, had even admitted that millions of people could already be incubating the disease, which is indetectable, incurable, always fatal and invisible for years or even decades before emerging as an Alzheimer's-like killer.

Or consider the conclusions of the Food and Drug Administration, which appeared nine months after the Oprah show, when FDA finally got around to publishing "proposed regulations" banning the practice of feeding cattle back to cattle.

"The data and information raise concern that BSE could occur in cattle in the United States," the FDA wrote, "and that if BSE does appear in this country, the causative agent could be transmitted and amplified through the feeding of processed ruminant protein to cattle, and could result in an epidemic."

Lyman, of course, used somewhat more colorful language. He called it "mad cow disease" instead of BSE. Instead of "processed ruminant protein," he talked about "feeding cows to cows." The bottom line, however, is that Lyman and Oprah Winfrey went on trial because they dared broadcast the same conclusions that the FDA itself would reach nine months later: Feeding cows back to cows is a dangerous, bad idea.

Lyman also accurately stated that England's epidemic was caused by the cannibalistic practice of feeding "ground-up" cows back to other cows through a practice known as "rendering." He was even correct when he stated that everything from house pets to highway roadkill went into the mix. The cattlemen might be forgiven for thinking that it is sensationalistic and in poor taste to discuss these gory matters, but the details themselves are accurate. Lyman had the right to say it, Oprah had the right to broadcast it and hamburger lovers have the right to know it.

As far as accuracy is concerned, Lyman's comments have aged better than comments made at the time by NCBA product safety director James Reagan. "There is no scientific evidence that says there is a relationship between BSE and that if you eat meat in Great Britain that you would develop CJD or BSE or whatever," Reagan said in a radio appearance aimed at rebutting the Oprah show. "Both of those are diseases of the central nervous system, but they are completely different."

Today, a solid scientific consensus has formed around the conclusion that James Reagan was dead wrong. Even the British beef industry has conceded that there is a link between mad cow disease and new variant Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (nvCJD). If passing out false information is a crime, therefore, the cattlemen ought to be on trial themselves.

If the cattlemen believe that Oprah's program gave a one-sided perspective of things, they have an obvious remedy. They can publish and disseminate point-by-point critiques of Lyman's statements, pointing out fallacies or mitigating circumstances. They can challenge him to open public debates, and in defense of their positions they can afford to hire the best experts money can buy. After all, the meat industry already spends a hundred million dollars a year hawking its products; its opinions and promotions and celebrity spokespeople dominate the commercial airwaves.

Instead of going this route, however, the cattlemen chose to sue, taking advantage of the new "agricultural product disparagement laws" that food industry lobbyists have succeeded in pushing through 13 state legislatures over the course of the past six years. The lawsuit against Lyman and Oprah is the first test in court of these so-called "veggie libel laws," but as vehicles for censorship they have already succeeded brilliantly outside the courtroom.

Is This Really Censorship?

The Oprah show was both Lyman's first and last chance to take his message to a huge national audience. Since then, no other programs have been willing to touch him, for fear of facing a lawsuit themselves. There have been no exposés of industry feeding practices on 60 Minutes or even Geraldo. The "alternative" media has also been largely silent about the feeding practices that Lyman criticized and about the danger that mad cow-type diseases could emerge in the United States. The cumulative effect of all this silence has helped create the impression that there was indeed something improper or criminal about the Oprah show, that it went too far, that it was "irresponsible."

Of course, the media was there in full force on January 20 when Winfrey and Lyman walked into that Amarillo courtroom. Commentators discussed everything from her outfit to her upcoming roster of guests. Unfortunately, none of the participants in the trial -- neither Winfrey nor Lyman, nor their attorneys, witnesses or spokespeople -- could say a single public word themselves about any of the issues, due to a bizarre and stifling gag order imposed by Amarillo Judge Mary Lou Robinson.

The Oprah lawsuit forced open a public debate, for the first time, about the unconstitutional restrictions which "product disparagement laws" impose on our First Amendment rights of free speech and press. However, this debate largely ignored the subject which the lawsuit itself aimed to suppress: Are mad cow-type epidemics a risk in the United States, and is the meat industry engaged in dangerous feeding practices?

The standard line we heard when called by reporters was, "We want to talk about the First Amendment issues, but we don't want to get into the mad cow stuff." If this journalistic standard had been applied to O.J. Simpson, reporters would have been saying, "We want to talk about the issue of domestic violence, but we don't want to get into the question of whether he killed Nicole."

The meat industry and USDA, meanwhile, have been actively disseminating misleading reassurances to the public.

It is quite common, for example, to read news stories about the case which state blandly that "some scientists claim there is a link between mad cow disease and a disease in humans called CJD" even though the evidence for this link has become a solid scientific consensus. In England even the meat industry concedes this point, but in the U.S. media it is still routinely described as nothing but the opinion of "some scientists."

There Was Never a Problem, and Anyway, We Fixed It

And the misinformation continues. Presently the cattlemen are telling the public that the problem of mad cow disease has been "solved" in the United States by a new FDA regulation last summer which, in the words of the New York Times, "banned the use of ground animal parts in feed."

Actually, the FDA regulation has numerous dangerous loopholes. Although the FDA put curbs on the practice of feeding cow meat and bone meal back to cows, similar cannibalistic practices continue on a wide scale with other livestock. Pigs and chickens in the U.S. are still routinely nourished with feed supplements derived from the bones, brains, meat scraps, feathers and even feces of their own species, which leaves open the possibility of a mad cow-like outbreak in these populations.

Even the practice of feeding cow proteins back to cows has not entirely ended, as evidenced by Dairy Herd Management, a leading trade publication. Its October 1997 issue -- published two months after the FDA's new regulation went into effect -- featured an article advising farmers to "consider using spray-dried bovine plasma" as well as "spray-dried whole blood" as "protein sources for starter feeds" for young calves. This practice is fully legal under the FDA's regulation, and it's a risk, but don't expect the news media to report it.

Notwithstanding Winfrey's victory in the courtroom, the cattlemen's lawsuit has achieved its main goal -- to cast a glaze of euphemism and evasion over the gory details of what is being discussed. This is precisely the opposite of what the public needs and deserves in today's world, where cannibalistic feeding practices are only one of many new factory farming techniques that industry is introducing at a dizzying rate -- new antibiotics, pesticides, hormones, food irradiation, and genetic engineering of everything from cows to vegetables to animal drugs.

If the food disparagement laws that have enabled the Oprah trial to proceed are allowed to stand, it doesn't much matter that she won her case. The U.S. food industry has pioneered a technique that can be used repeatedly to chill debate about the risks associated with any and all controversial food industry practices.

Investigative journalist Nicols Fox calls mad cow disease a "warning shot across the bow" of the modern farm industry -- a warning of the dangers associated with technological innovation that may go unrecognized until it is too late to stop a tragedy. The Oprah lawsuit should also be a warning shot across the bow for journalists, activists and the public. It tells us how deeply the industry has fallen into denial of those dangers, and how far it will go in forcing that denial upon the rest of us.

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