Oprah Not the Only "Mad Cow in America"


A popular Texas bumper sticker reads: "The only mad cow in America is Oprah." Not anymore with the USDA announcing that the first home-grown case of mad cow to be discovered is a Texas beef cow. As Sheldon Rampton and I report in Mad Cow USA, the failure of the United States to take the measures necessary to stop the spread of the fatal dementia dubbed mad cow disease resulted from a successful PR campaign by industry and government that to this day has fooled most of the press and the public into believing that all necessary steps were taken long ago. A major part of the effort to spin and intimidate media coverage involved suing Oprah Winfrey under the Texas Food Disparagement Act after she aired a program April 16, 1996, examining mad cow risks in America.

To this day, the real ‘firewall feed ban’ necessary to stop mad cow disease in the United State has not been constructed. Officials of the United States Department of Agriculture simply lie to the press and public when they say, as USDA veterinarian John Clifford did on June 29, that a "ruminant to ruminant feed ban" prevents cattle protein from being fed to cattle in the US, cutting off the spread of the disease. In reality, as Clifford well knows, US animal feed regulations allow hundreds of millions of pounds of cattle blood and fat to be fed back to cattle each year, including the widespread weaning of calves on cattle blood protein in calf milk replacer and milk formula. In addition, one million tons a year of "poultry litter" is shoveled from barn floors at chicken factories and fed to cattle, although the spilled and defecated chicken feed in the litter can contain up to 30% mammalian meat and bone meal.

In Mad Cow USA we explain how and why Texas cattlemen, at the urging of now-governor Rick Perry, sued Oprah Winfrey in early 1996 for the Texas crime of disparaging beef. Oprah’s sin was to host a balanced program on mad cow risks in the United States that aired April 16, 1996 and featured Dr. Gary Weber of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Dr. Will Hueston of the USDA. Also on her show was former cattle rancher Howard Lyman who for the first time before a national audience revealed that cattle slaughterhouse waste was (and is today) being fed to cattle in the United States and that the United States would develop mad cow disease if the practice continued. As we now know, Lyman’s warning and prediction was accurate and mad cow disease was probably spreading in Texas at the time of Oprah’s show.

Now that mad cow disease has been detected in Texas, it is interesting to review the unfortunately successful efforts of then-Agriculture Commissioner and now-Governor Rick Perry to intimidate and silence media coverage of mad cow risks in the US using the Texas food disparagement act.
It was on March 20, 1996, that the British government shocked the world with it’s announcement (after ten years of denying it could happen) that young people with a fatal dementia were dead or dying of mad cow disease, the first known human deaths. As we report in Mad Cow USA, "In Texas, agriculture officials responded to the news of human deaths in England with a publicity stunt, organizing a cookout and offering reporters slices of smoked brisket while Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry criticized the media for stirring up public fears. A spokesman for the meat industry stood along beside him and moralized about the need to avoid ‘hysteria in the US about domestic beef.’ "

After Oprah’s alleged crime of airing a show examining mad cow risks in the United States, Rick Perry demanded that she be dragged into a Texas courtroom. As we report in Mad Cow USA, "In Texas, State Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry asked the attorney general to use the state’s new ‘food disparagement law’ to file a lawsuit against Lyman and the Oprah show. When the attorney general declined, beef feedlot operator Paul Engler and a company named Cactus Feeders stepped in to shoulder the burden, hiring a powerhouse L.A. Attorney to file a lawsuit which sought $2 million in damages plus punitive fines. ‘We’re taking the Israeli action on this thing,’ Engler said. ‘Get in there and just blow the hell out of somebody.’ The lawsuit, filed on May 28, 1996, complained as follows: ‘The defendants allowed anti-meat activists to present biased, unsubstantiated, and irresponsible claims against beef, not only damaging the beef industry but also placing a tremendous amount of unwarranted fear in the public. … Defendants’ conduct in making the statements contained herein and allowing those statements to be aired without verifying the accuracy of such statements goes beyond all possible bounds of decency and is utterly intolerable in a civilized society.’ "

Oprah claimed victory after spending millions of dollars and years of her life battling her lawsuit. However, the real victors were Rick Perry and the cattle industry since they succeeded as intended in squelching news media coverage of mad cow risks in the United States, allowing to this day the continual feeding of hundreds of millions of pounds a year of cattle blood and fat to cattle, continuing the very practices that spread mad cow disease. Now Governor Perry resides over the first US state to discover a home-grown case of the deadly animal and human dementia.

On June 30 the New York Times reported that "Governor Rick Perry of Texas issued a statement urging citizens to remain calm and be reassured that they could trust the state’s beef. ‘I, for one, will continue to eat red meat, and intend to do so later tonight with complete confidence,’ Mr. Perry said. He later issued a revised statement that dropped the reference to his dinner plans but added that Texas beef was ‘as safe today as it was yesterday.’ "

JOHN STAUBER works for the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit organization based in Madison, Wisconsin. He is the co-author of Mad Cow USA.


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