HAVE WE COMMITTED A "VEGGIE HATE CRIME"?

The heavy spraying of DDT and its impact on dairy herds is well-known to Arizona farmers, but not to the public. And a new law passed by the legislature may make it more difficult for the media to raise questions about the safety of the food supply.

The so-called "veggie hate-crime" law signed last month by Governor J. Fife Symington III does more than merely protect fruits and vegetables from false statements that might cause a decline in sales. The law also applies to other perishable foods, including meat, poultry, eggs and milk, says Jim Klinker, a lobbyist for the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation.

The law gives growers and shippers the right to seek damages against a person or organization that disseminates false information about a food product.

"It gives us a cause of action for irresponsible reporting and irresponsible statements made about perishable crops," Klinker says.

What exactly is "irresponsible reporting" is difficult to define. Klinker and other advocates of the law cite a 1989 60 Minutes report on the dangers of children eating apples treated with Alar, a widely used pesticide.

CBS News correspondent Ed Bradley told an estimated 40 million viewers that Alar was "the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply" and was "sprayed on apples to keep them on the trees longer and make them look better."

The broadcast triggered a slew of sensational news accounts that fueled a nationwide panic; apples were dumped by the trainload, and the nation's apple industry suffered at least a $100 million loss.

Washington apple growers filed a lawsuit in 1992 seeking to collect damages from CBS and others. The case was dismissed because a federal judge ruled that a large class of individuals, such as apple growers, was not protected by trade libel and product disparagement laws.

Farm groups reacted to the federal court's decision by urging states to grant legal standing to shippers and growers of perishable products.

Arizona responded with the "veggie hate-crime" bill and is the eighth state to pass such a law. The California Legislature is debating whether to enact a similar law.

In Arizona, Klinker and the Western Growers Association pointed to the Alar story as an example of how irresponsible journalism can wreck agricultural markets.

But was the CBS news story wrong?
The merits of the broadcast have never been reviewed in court. However, the story was roundly criticized for failing to put into perspective the risk people faced from eating Alar-treated apples. The story also failed to note that several major food manufacturers had already quit buying apples treated with Alar.

The scientific evidence concerning Alar was split at the time of the broadcast and remained divided up to the time Alar's manufacturer, Uniroyal Corporation, stopped producing it in 1992.

But 60 Minutes' fundamental premise--that Alar posed a public-health danger--was supported by Dr. John A. Moore, acting director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under then-president George Bush.

Moore said on the 1989 broadcast that Alar "should come off the market" because of "an inescapable and direct correlation" between exposure to Alar and "the development of life-threatening tumors."

In 1992, the EPA said its research showed that long-term exposure to Alar "poses unacceptable risks to public health" and that "food use of daminozide [Alar] posed an unreasonable risk of cancer to the public.

 
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