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Wednesday, February 18, 1998 Published at 10:19 GMT


Oprah food libel claim rejected
image: [ Oprah Winfrey's opponents will now have to prove she made her comments out of malice ]
Oprah Winfrey's opponents will now have to prove she made her comments out of malice

A judge in the United States has ruled that farmers do not have a case against the television presenter, Oprah Winfrey, under a law designed to protect food from false and defamatory statements.

But they can still claim common law business defamation - an action which requires a heavier burden of proof.

Texas ranchers are suing the 44-year-old talk show host over comments she made during a 1996 programme.

[ image: Ms Winfrey's show when the infamous burger comment was made]
Ms Winfrey's show when the infamous burger comment was made
One of her guests, Howard Lyman, a cattle rancher turned vegetarian acitivist 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?" she said.

"It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger."

The cattlemen claim that comment triggered safety fears and caused beef prices to plummet costing them millions of pounds.

[ image: Bumper sticker indicates extent of some of her opposition]
Bumper sticker indicates extent of some of her opposition
The trial in Amarillo, Texas, was expected to be the first major test of so-called "veggie libel" laws now in place in 13 American states.

But US District Judge Mary Lou Robinson has now tossed out claims of food disparagement libel.

She has ruled that the suit, now in its fifth week of trial, would be tried solely on business disparagement law, which means that the cattle ranchers will now have to prove malice on the part of Ms Winfrey.

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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