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Coalition takes aim at "veggie-libel' laws

Oprah insulted cows. An Ohio woman slurred eggs. And Honda likened emu to pigs.

While lawyers hash out the resulting libel cases in court, a coalition of First Amendment advocates has promised to work at the state level to prevent future lawsuits.

The Foodspeak Free Speech Coalition began a campaign Wednesday to repeal the state statutes, often called "veggie-libel laws," that it thinks silence food-safety debate.

The alliance's 26 member organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Society of Professional Journalists, plan to use letter-writing and other grass-roots tactics to convince state officials the laws violate the First Amendment.

"It seems corporations want to do what King George III, foreign dictators and bad domestic bosses were unable to do," public advocate Ralph Nader told reporters. "And that is shut up the American people."

It all started with a few bad apples in 1989, when CBS' 60 Minutes linked a cancer-causing chemical to apples. Washington growers sued and lost, but 13 states enacted laws _ like Florida's 1995 statute _ to stop the libel of perishable foods.

The food industry now defends the laws as essential protections from false or misguided information.

The American Feed Industry Association even circulated a mod-el statute to state legislators several years ago as a guide for legislation that "agribusiness" wanted passed.

"Our model does not say thou shalt not speak ill of meat, milk and eggs," AFIA senior vice president Steve Kopperud said. "It says, if you are going to say it, you have every right to say it. If you do so in one of the states where there are some hoops to jump through, prove it."

Oprah Winfrey did. In a case that put Amarillo, Texas, on the map, cattle ranchers lost a suit that tried to pin her talk show's mad cow episode with the devaluation and defamation of beef.

She still faces an appeal.

Meanwhile, an Ohio consumer advocate who accused an egg wholesaler of washing and repackaging old eggs awaits her day in court.

But the biggest "joke" of all, said David J. Bederman, a law professor at Atlanta's Emory University, is the emu suit.

Nine Texas emu ranchers say Honda's 1997 ad featuring Joe, a job-hunting Civic driver, defiled their low-fat red meat by referring to it as "the pork of the future."

Though Kopperud maintains veggie-libel laws target organizations with agendas, Foodspeak argues that the statutes bully critics, including the media, into silence by threatening them with pricey lawsuits.