Watch your mouth!

Over the past few years, outcries from food activists have changed
many Americans’ eating habits: Criticism of widespread pesticide
use led many consumers to organic foods, and early warnings
prompted shoppers to shun irradiated and genetically altered food.

But now angry agribusiness groups are fighting back. Major
players, among them the American Farm Bureau Federation, have
muscled ‘agricultural disparagement’ laws through state
legislatures. The statutes make it illegal to suggest that a
particular food is unsafe without a ‘sound scientific basis’ for
the claim, reports Paul Rauber in Sierra (Nov./Dec. 1995).
These so-called banana bills are on the books in Alabama, Arizona,
Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi,
Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas, and are under consideration in
California, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon,
Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Washington.

Banana bill backers believe the laws will protect agricultural
producers from losses like those following the Alar scare in 1989,
when the TV magazine show 60 Minutes publicized a Natural
Resources Defense Council report charging that the chemical, which
enhances the appearance of apples, causes cancer. Overnight, tons
of apples, applesauce, and apple juice became grocery shelf
untouchables, and Washington apple growers lost $130 million,
according to the Washington State Farm Bureau.

Florida proponents of banana bills point to the fate of
Vindicator Inc., a Florida firm that opened the nation’s first food
irradiation facility and now is struggling to survive. Vindicator
blamed activists’ anti-irradiation publicity for its woes, and
fearful farmers in the agribusiness-rich state teamed up to pass a
banana bill with clout: Those found guilty of ‘agricultural
disparagement’ have to pay three times the estimated dollar amount
of damage done to the ag interest plaintiffs.

Banana bill foes say the laws simply serve to stifle those who
speak out against risky food — produce with ‘acceptable’ levels of
pesticides, genetically altered tomatoes, milk from cows injected
with the growth hormone rbST (recombinant bovine somatotropin),
which boosts milk production. Even when a lawsuit against a food
safety group fails, legal fees can bankrupt the group. In Safe
Food News
(Summer 1994), David Bederman, an ACLU attorney
challenging Georgia’s banana bill, predicts the laws will encourage
‘state-sanctioned SLAPP suits,’ new versions of the strategic
lawsuits against public participation that corporations have been
filing or threatening to file against critical groups since the

Many journalists are also outraged about banana bills, calling
them an affront to free speech and an impediment to covering
critical food safety issues, notes Nicols Fox in American
Journalism Review
(March 1995). Most critics question the laws’
requirement that only charges based on ‘reasonable and reliable’
evidence be allowed. Who determines what’s ‘reasonable’? After all,
it’s unlikely that agribusinesses will accept even the best
evidence if it threatens their bottom line. Fox notes that even
though the Environmental Protection Agency — not exactly a
devil-may-care outfit — affirmed that Alar posed unacceptable
health risks, Washington State Farm Bureau spokesperson Peter
Stemberg insists that EPA’s science is ‘subject to second

Stemberg’s statement, ironically enough, makes the ideal
argument against banana bills. Thalidomide, DDT, and other toxic
‘innovations’ were originally endorsed by the best scientific
minds. Thanks to the ‘second opinions’ of food safety,
environmental, and health groups — opinions that challenged
accepted wisdom — the nation’s health has doubtless been

Instead of attacking what they deride as ‘junk science,’ food
producers should be listening to the public’s food worries, says
Sierra’s Rauber, who cites a recent Young & Rubicam poll that
found that 4 out of 5 Americans are ‘very concerned about food
safety.’ Many agribusinesses seem more interested in keeping
consumers in the dark about what they’re eating than in exploring
ways to produce safe food. A case in point is rbST maker Monsanto,
who fought (and eventually lost) a battle to keep dairy producers
from advertising that their milk came from rbST-free cows.

If you are concerned about state banana bills, and about the
food industry’s efforts to have similar laws included in the 1995
federal farm bill, Rauber suggests that you contact state and
federal officials and activist groups such as the
Environmental Working Group. And
Dr. Wally Burnstein, founder of the food-safety group Food &
Water Inc., recommends turning the tables: Activists can work for
new laws that forbid corporate and government officials to make
false safety claims about dangerous products.

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