Chapter One: How to Tell the Truth and Get in Trouble
I am a fourth-generation dairy farmer and cattle rancher. I grew up on a dairy farm in Montana, and I ran a feedlot operation there for twenty years. I know firsthand how cattle are raised and how meat is produced in this country.
Today I am president of Earth Save International, an organization promoting organic farming and the vegitarian diet.
Sure, I used to enjoy my steaks as much as the next guy. But if you knew what I know about what goes into them and what they can do to you, you'd probably be a vegetarian like me. And, believe it or not, as a pure vegetarian now who consumes no animal products at all, I can tell you that these days I enjoy eating more than ever.
If you're a meat-eater in America, you have a right to know that you have something in common with most of the cows you've eaten. They've eaten meat, too.
When a cow is slaughtered, about half of it by weight is not eaten by humans: the intestines and their contents, the head, hooves, and horns, as well as bones and blood. These are dumped into giant grinders at rendering plants, as are the entire bodies of cows and other farm animals known to be diseased. Rendering is a $2.4-billion-a-year industry, processing forty billion pounds of dead animals a year. There is simply no such thing in America as an animal too ravaged by disease, too cancerous, or too putrid to be welcomed by the all-embracing arms of the renderer. Another staple of the renderer's diet, in addition to farm animals, is euthanized pets -- the six or seven million dogs and cats that are killed in animal shelters every year. The city of Los Angeles alone, for example, sends some two hundred tons of euthanized cats and dogs to a rendering plant every month. Added to the blend are the euthanized catch of animal control agencies, and roadkill. (Roadkill is not collected daily, and in the summer, the better roadkill collection crews can generally smell it before they can see it.) When this gruesome mix is ground and steam-cooked, the lighter, fatty material floating to the top gets refined for use in such products as cosmetics, lubricants, soaps, candles, and waxes. The heavier protein material is dried and pulverized into a brown powder -- about a quarter of which consists of fecal material. The powder is used as an additive to almost all pet food as well as to livestock feed. Farmers call it "protein concentrates." In 1995, five million tons of processed slaughterhouse leftovers were sold for animal feed in the United States. I used to feed tons of the stuff to my own livestock. It never concerned me that I was feeding cattle to cattle.
In August 1997, in response to growing concern about the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (or Mad Cow disease), the FDA issued a new regulation that bans the feeding of ruminant protein (protein from cud-chewing animals) to ruminants; therefore, to the extent that the regulation is actually enforced, cattle are no longer quite the cannibals that we had made them into. They are no longer eating solid parts of other cattle, or sheep, or goats. They still munch, however, on ground-up dead horses, dogs, cats, pigs, chickens, and turkeys, as well as blood and fecal material of their own species and that of chickens. About 75 percent of the ninety million beef cattle in America are routinely given feed that has been "enriched" with rendered animal parts. The use of animal excrement in feed is common as well, as livestock operators have found it to be an efficient way of disposing of a portion of the 1.6 million tons of livestock wastes generated annually by their industry. In Arkansas, for example, the average farm feeds over fifty tons of chicken litter to cattle every year. One Arkansas cattle farmer was quoted in U.S. News & World Report as having recently purchased 745 tons of litter collected from the floors of local chicken-raising operations. After mixing it with small amounts of soybean bran, he then feeds it to his eight hundred head of cattle, making them, in his words, "fat as butterballs." He explained, "If I didn't have chicken litter, I'd have to sell half my herd. Other feeds are too expensive." If you are a meat-eater, understand that this is the food of your food.
We don't know all there is to know about the extent to which the consumption of diseased or unhealthy animals causes disease in humans, but we do know that some diseases -- rabies, for example -- are transmitted from the host animal to humans. We know that the common food poisonings brought on by such organisms as the prevalent E. coli bacteria, which results from fecal contamination of food, causes the death of nine thousand Americans a year and that about 80 percent of food poisonings come from tainted meat. And now we can also be certain, from the tragedy that has already afflicted Britain, that Mad Cow disease can "jump species" and give rise to a new variant of the always fatal, brain-wasting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.
A funny thing can happen when you tell the truth in this country. You can get sued. In April of 1996, I was sitting on the stage of The Oprah Winfrey Show, looking into the shocked faces of a studio audience that was learning for the first time that we were turning cows into cannibals. "Right now," I explained, "we're following exactly the same path that they followed in England -- ten years of dealing with [Mad Cow disease] as public relations rather than doing something substantial about it. A hundred thousand cows per year in the United States are fine one night, then [found] dead the following morning. The majority of those cows are...ground up and fed back to other cows. If only one of them has Mad Cow disease, it has the potential to affect thousands." Oprah herself was taken aback, and said quite simply, "Cows are herbivores. They shouldn't be eating other cows....It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger."
Sitting next to me on the stage was a representative of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Dr. Gary Weber, whose job it was to reassure the viewing public of the absolute safety of meat. I felt sorry for the guy; he had an extremely difficult hand to play. He couldn't deny my assertion that we'd been feeding cows to cows, but belittling the fact didn't sit well with a gasping audience. During commercial breaks he privately agreed with me that we shouldn't be adding chopped-up cow to animal feed.
In early June, a suit was nonetheless filed on behalf of a group of Texas cattlemen, naming not only me but Oprah and her production company, Harpo Productions, as joint culprits in Food Disparagement. The Texas cattlemen and the Texas Commissioner of Agriculture apparently believe that the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, guaranteeing freedom of expression, was not meant to be interpreted so broadly as to allow people to say unpleasant things about beef. Pointing to a drop in the cattle futures market, the plaintiffs charged me with making "slanderous" statements about cattle and beef that caused them to endure "shame, embarrassment, humiliation, and mental pain and anguish." Under Texas's Food Disparagement law, the burden of proof rests, to a great extent, on the shoulders of the defendants. In January 1998, a jury was convened in Amarillo, Texas, to determine, among other things, whether my statements deviated from "reasonable and reliable scientific inquiry, fact, or data" -- a standard of proof that seems remarkably oblivious of the fact that disagreement has always existed within the scientific community itself on most matters of importance, and certainly exists now on the matter of Mad Cow disease. Controversy even erupted in nineteenth-century Hungary when Dr. Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis suggested that medical students delivering babies should wash their hands first -- especially as many of them had come to the delivery room after dissecting corpses. The man was roundly attacked for this radical view, but at least he didn't have to face any Germ Disparagement laws.
Thirteen states have Food Disparagement laws on the books. In Colorado, convicted food disparagers can even be sent to jail. These laws represent the most concerted attack on First Amendment freedoms in at least a generation, and effectively put consumer advocates on notice that anything they may have to say concerning the safety of any aspect of our food supply could bring a bankrupting lawsuit smashing down on their heads.
Oprah and I have the distinction of being the first individuals sued under the Texas Food Disparagement Act. More than a year after we were sued, the second lawsuit premised on the law was filed -- by emu ranchers against the Honda Motor Company, whose television commercials they felt poked fun at emus. Emu prices had been plummeting for years, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the emu ranchers were secretly pleased to find an entity like Honda with deep pockets to blame it on. It seems that, in Texas at least, you can't be too careful what you say about cattle and emus.
Within a few months after the Oprah show aired and caused a firestorm of controversy, the Food and Drug Administration announced pending regulations to eliminate the feeding of ruminants to ruminants. The specific content of the regulations was delayed until after the presidential elections of 1996, most likely to avoid offending the livestock industry. Finally, the August 1997 ban on feeding ruminants to ruminants, a necessary but insufficient measure to stave off the spread of Mad Cow disease to America, went into effect.
Most of the media outlets in this country generate significant advertising revenues from the meat and dairy industries. After the Oprah show aired, I learned that the Beef Promotion Council pulled over six hundred thousand dollars' worth of network advertising. It's rare to find a media power player like Oprah, with the guts and the integrity to be willing to take on the big boys. I'll never forget that on the day of the show, Oprah told me privately that she had seen the movie Babe several times and would never eat pork again. During the show, she appeared to give up beef. Afterwards, I said, "Oprah, give me five minutes and I'll get you off chicken." She said, "One animal per day, please."
If you're going to be sued for disparaging beef, common sense alone would tell you to choose any setting other than Amarillo, Texas, for the site of the trial. Amarillo positively reeks of cows; the beef industry is a $3-billion-a-year industry there. Twenty-five percent of U.S. cattle are fattened in Amarillo feedlots before going to market. The town's biggest private employer is a slaughterhouse. A mural of cattle adorns the courthouse above the elevator. Amarillo is also the hometown of Paul Engler, a feedlot owner who was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. An internal memo distributed by the president of the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce almost two weeks before the trial began reminded all concerned that the chamber "fully supports the cattle feed industry" and that there should be no "red carpet rollouts" for Oprah Winfrey. For all those reasons, our respective attorneys filed a pretrial motion asking that the trial be given a change of venue from Amarillo to the more neutral territory of Dallas. The motion was denied. My attorney took that as a legal setback, and an indication that the judge was hostile to our side, but I was secretly pleased. I liked the idea of giving my opponents their best shot. Let them have the hometown advantage, I thought. If Oprah and I prevailed, the victory would be all the sweeter.
Oprah could have easily afforded to pay the millions of dollars she was being sued for, but to her credit she fought both for her reputation and for freedom of speech, and moved her television show from Chicago to Amarillo for the trial. Reporters followed her like flies to a feedlot. Neither she nor I could step up to the microphones, however, as Judge Mary Lou Robinson had imposed a gag order on all parties for the duration of the trial. Day after day on the news, Oprah could be seen shrugging in uncharacteristic muteness at the cameras as she entered and left the courthouse. For some reason, the press showed less interest in me, and I can state unequivocally that absolutely no member of the press whatsoever showed any interest at all in what I was wearing.
I was on the witness stand for two days. Since the Food Disparagement law on which the plaintiffs' case was premised makes a person liable if he or she knowingly gives information that "states or implies" that a "perishable food product is not safe for consumption by the public," and that information is judged to be false according to "reasonable and reliable scientific inquiry, facts, or data," the plaintiffs' attorney had to first establish that I had disseminated certain "facts." He would then have to prove that those facts were "false," and that I had known they were false. But I simply denied that my warnings of the dangers of Mad Cow disease spreading to the States were "facts" at all. I repeatedly said I was expressing only my opinion. And while I firmly believe that my warning that the practice of cow cannibalism could have tragic consequences falls into the category of "opinion" rather than "fact" -- how, after all, can there be a fact about the future? -- the idea that millions of dollars' worth of liability should rest on such distinctions endangers healthy debate in a free society. The exercise I went through on the stand simply has no place in the America that I believe in. I had to answer questions such as, "Has anyone ever said you were irresponsible?" I was under oath, in a court of law. I couldn't lie. "My wife," I said.
When Oprah took the stand, she called the lawsuit "the most painful thing I've ever experienced." Then she added, "I feel in my heart I've never done a malicious act against any human being." I believe her. Throughout the trial, inside and outside the courtroom, I never heard her say an unkind word about anyone, even the cattlemen who had attacked her reputation for integrity. "I just don't understand why I'm here," she often said. As she pointed out on the stand, she had invited two guests on the show to present the beef industry's point of view. She had even allowed one of them, Dr. Weber, to return for a follow-up show, without me or any other food safety activist present to counter his claims. Oprah could hardly be fairly accused of harboring an anti-beef agenda, and yet here she was in Amarillo, accused of just that.
Mr. Engler, our accuser, took the stand and testified that he might not have filed suit if I had qualified my statements on the air as simply my opinions. He said that Dr. Weber was not under any such obligation to qualify his statements because he had more credibility by virtue of having a Ph.D. and not being a vegetarian. My attorney pointed out that Engler and I had some things in common: both of us have bachelor's degrees in agriculture, and both of us became cattlemen who once sold off our cattle to cover debts. Therefore, my attorney asked, "If you appeared on a national talk show, would you have to say that you were expressing an opinion?"
"No," Engler answered.
"Is the main difference between you and Mr. Lyman that you don't agree with him?" my attorney asked.
"No, sir. It's difficult to say," Engler said. He paused, then explained, "Mr. Lyman's a liar."
The jury didn't buy his logic. On February 26, 1998, the long ordeal came to an end when the jury, after a deliberation that lasted less than six hours, found us not liable for damages. It was a wonderful day for me, full of the joy that comes of relief from torment. But there are better kinds of joy, and I wouldn't wish the experience of a potentially bankrupting lawsuit on my worst enemy. I hope that the thirteen states that currently have food libel laws, and the fourteen other states that are reported to be currently considering enacting them, note that the trial became something of a bad joke throughout the nation. And I hope and trust that these laws will soon be found unconstitutional.
I can tell you as a former Alleged Food Disparager that behind the absurdity of this lawsuit lay an ugly reality. The American people have been raised to believe that someone is looking out for their food safety. The disturbing truth is that the protection of the quality of our food is the mandate of foot-dragging bureaucrats at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration who can generally be counted upon to behave not like public servants but like hired hands of the meat and dairy industries.
My journey from feedlot operator to cattlemen's nemesis has been a strange ride, one that has brought me from castrating calves to experiencing the frustrations of Washington politics, from embracing high-tech agriculture to getting sued by its practitioners. I don't pretend to understand the meaning of every bump in the road I've traveled. Hell, I sometimes feel like I was unconscious for the first half of the trip. But I can say this much for sure: all the signposts along the way concerned my health. Every time I instinctively made a choice consistent with the improvement of my physical health, it was as if more light was shed to guide me on what has turned out to be a marvelous path.
In writing this book, it is my purpose, more than anything else, to share what I've learned about how the best choices for our personal health turn out to be the best choices for the world we inhabit.
For all too many Americans, the first decision they consciously make about their health is the stark one between bypass surgery and angioplasty, or between chemotherapy and radiation. In reality, however, we knowingly or unknowingly make choices every day that can either lead us toward those grim options, or else toward happier ones. We do so, of course, every time we decide what fuel to put in our bodies.
To make our choices informed ones, we have to start with the facts.
Copyright © 1998 by Howard Lyman and Glen Merzer