Meat Industry INSIGHTS Newsletter

980162 Witnesses Say Oprah Cost Beef Industry $10 Mln

January 24, 1998

Amarillo, TX - Inside the courtroom, television talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey was accused of taking a $10 million bite out of beef prices, but outside hundreds of fans gathered to serenade her with kazoos and shake her hand.

Whether she was a villain or a beloved star depended on where she was.

"It's kind of unusual because, you know, I'm not here to party exactly," a bemused Winfrey said Friday outside the courthouse.

"It feels surreal to me because this is very serious what goes on during the day, and then have all these people screaming," she said, gesturing back toward the adoring fans standing behind police barricades.

The curious double life was the result of a lawsuit by a group of Texas cattlemen who charge that a 1996 Winfrey show about mad cow disease drove down cattle prices by misleading and frightening consumers.

She was accused of rattling futures markets when she vowed never to eat another hamburger after a guest said ground up cattle protein was being fed to other cattle.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) forced the slaughter of 1.5 million cattle in Britain and is blamed in the deaths of at least 20 people. Scientists think BSE was spread by feeding cattle body parts of sheep with a related disease, scrapie.

U.S. officials say BSE does not exist here, but last year banned the feeding of cattle protein to cattle.

Witness Bill O'Brien, head of plaintiff Texas Beef Producers, said the Winfrey show, aired on April 15, 1996, caused prices to fall by 7 cents a pound in one day.

It hammered home the message that U.S. beef was bad "with a video of cattle falling down, playing boom, boom, boom scary music in the background, sound bites of inaccurate information and Oprah over there cheerleading it on and putting her stamp of approval on all of it," he testified.

O'Brien said meat packers, after hearing about the show, started pulling out of the market in droves.

"The markets reacted to how the show was produced and how it scared people," he said. "Prior to the Oprah Winfrey show, the safety of American beef was presented as a nonevent."

Defense attorneys say the disputed show was accurate and fair and blamed the beef price drop on other factors.

Testimony was to resume on Monday.

The trial, expected to last up to a month, is the biggest test so far of "veggie libel" laws aimed at protecting agricultural producers from false claims against their products. Thirteen states, including Texas, have adopted the laws.

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