Oprah on Trial*

(This column was first printed in the January 19, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    Oprah goes on trial tomorrow.

    The central target of the lawsuit is former cattleman Howard Lyman, who is being sued by a Texas feedlot operator for $2 million in damages plus punitive fines. Ms. Winfrey along with production and distribution companies for the Oprah Winfrey Show are secondary targets, included because her talk show last April provided the forum for Lyman's remarks -- and coincidentally because of their deep pockets.

    Isn't it interesting that the subject of that show -- transmissible spongiform encephalopathies -- should cause Ms. Winfrey and her guest so much trouble. Surely this is not a topic that could attain the ratings of the more usual lightweight talk show subjects like "Teens Who Want to Marry their Pets" or "The Eat-Everything-in-Sight Weight Loss Program."

    The court case is based on the application of a 1995 Texas statute designed to protect agricultural products from disparagement. Lyman said: "Bovine spongiform encephalopathy could make AIDS look like the common cold.... A hundred thousand cows per year in the United States are fine at night, dead in the morning. The majority of those cows are rounded up, ground up, fed back to other cows. If only one of them has mad cow disease, it has the potential to affect thousands." And the thousands he spoke of included humans as well as cows.
 Consider some background. Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy is medical jargon for a "communicable disease that turns the brain spongy." The acronym TSE commonly represents these diseases which come in many forms. The one Lyman talked about is bovine or cow TSE but there are also types that were until recently considered specific to sheep -- called scrapie --, New Guinea cannibals -- called kuru -- and even civilized humans -- called Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease. All are 100% fatal.

    Two recent findings have brought these diseases to the forefront. First, doctors found that TSEs can break the so-called "species barrier." They have shown, for example, that mink TSE can infect skunks, raccoons and monkeys. Most important, after long delay and several dozen human deaths, the British government admitted that their bovine TSE -- called in the press mad cow disease -- was linked to an outbreak of human Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease. To prevent further spread, 150,000 English cattle were destroyed.

    Second, it was established that the diseases can be contracted by eating infected animal parts. The unknown communicating agent is extremely virulent: a sheep's brain remained infective after being boiled for a half hour.

    Recycling is necessary because our country has serious landfill problems. Formerly most recycled animal fats went into production of soap, but synthetics eliminated that. Faced with this market loss, renderers began to produce animal foods from offal. But Lyman and others feel that this practice of "turning vegetarian animals into carnivores" is unacceptable.

    There is a miniscule chance today of eating the meat of a diseased animal. But what has been called "benign cannibalism," the practice of feeding animals food containing not only slaughterhouse carcasses but also parts of other dead animals, provides a possible vector for TSEs and additional diseases.

    We have no identified mad cow disease in this country and Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease remains very rare. Despite this our Food and Drug Administration has now banned feeding dead cattle, sheep and goats back to other ruminants. But critics find this law insufficient. For example, Consumers Union responded, "By failing to include swine..., FDA has left the door open to a mad cow-like disease to circulate in the United States."

    The "Oprah case" raises freedom of speech issues. But it has an even more compelling aspect. It calls our attention -- and hopefully that of law-makers -- to a serious health hazard.

* Much of the content of this column was drawn from the book, Mad Cow U.S.A.: Could the Nightmare Happen Here by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1997), from the journal PR Watch (4, 2: Second Quarter 1997), and from the PR Watch website.