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Wednesday, January 21, 1998 Published at 03:26 GMT


Jury selected in Oprah Winfrey trial
image: [ Oprah Winfrey causing a stir in Amarillo ]
Oprah Winfrey causing a stir in Amarillo

America talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey clowned in court and smiled for fans on Tuesday as a jury was selected in her showdown with Texas cattlemen who say a programme of hers on mad cow disease cost them $12m.

Opening arguments in their lawsuit were set to begin on Wednesday afternoon after four men and eight women were chosen as jurors.

[ image: Ms Winfrey's show when the infamous burger comment was made]
Ms Winfrey's show when the infamous burger comment was made
The cattlemen say that Ms Winfrey drove down beef prices when she said in her April 15, 1996, show that she would no longer eat burgers after a guest alleged that American cattle might be infected with BSE.

A smiling Ms Winfrey waved at cheering fans every time she walked in and out of the federal courthouse. Among the spectators were animal rights activists dressed in cow suits.

When a reporter asked her how she was doing, she said, "Feeling good!".

In court, Ms Winfrey drew laughter when she jokingly glared at one potential juror who gave her popular television program mixed reviews.

In response to questions from US District Judge Mary Lou Robinson, a woman said she was a regular viewer of the programme but not every show was great. "I've enjoyed some and not enjoyed some," she said. Ms Winfrey gave her a mean look, then laughed along with others in the courtroom.

Mad cow

[ image: Creating controversy  on car bumpers]
Creating controversy on car bumpers
Her appearance in Amarillo has created a stir in the city of 150,000 in the far north of Texas.

The conflicting emotions she provokes are reflected in two car stickers on sale: "Amarillo Loves Oprah" and "The Only Mad Cow in America Is Oprah."

Out of 58 people in the jury pool, only seven said they had not seen her programme.

The lawsuit arose from a show in which Howard Lyman, a cattle rancher turned vegetarian activist, said that feeding animal parts to cattle was a common practice that could spread mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), to humans in the United States.

"Now doesn't that concern you all a little bit, right here, learning that?" Ms Winfrey asked the audience. "It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger."

The plaintiffs say that the comments were misleading.

Veggie libel

The case is the biggest test so far of so-called "veggie libel" laws against publicly disparaging agricultural products.

Opponents say the laws violate the right of free speech and prevent healthy discussion of potential food dangers. But supporters say agricultural producers, particularly because their products have a limited life, must be protected from unsubstantiated claims that scare away consumers.

Veggie libel laws have been adopted in 13 states, including Texas.

Legal experts said the lawsuit against Ms Winfrey could go to the US Supreme Court.

Mad cow disease, which destroys the brain, has forced the slaughter of 1.5 million cows in Britain and led to the deaths of at least 20 people thought to have contracted the human form of the disease by eating infected beef.

Scientists believe BSE was spread by feeding cattle body parts of sheep with a related disease, scrapie.

The United States, where officials say BSE does not exist, last year ordered a halt to the practice of feeding most animal parts to cattle.

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