In short, agricultural disparagement is essentially the application of defamation laws to the food industry. More specifically, agricultural disparagement is the set of written laws that are designed to protect food producers from negative reports concerning the food product.
When an individual makes a negative statement about a food or produce product, such as it being contaminated or unsafe for consumption, such statements can have adverse effects on various parties. These include the food producers, farmers, or distributors, as the statements will make consumers less willing to buy the product.
As such, agricultural disparagement laws have been adopted by many states with the intent to protect food producers, packagers, distributors, and farmers from false or malicious statements concerning food products. Common agricultural disparagement laws offer remedies for food producers that are harmed by false or malicious reports of food contamination.
Typically agricultural disparagement laws are aimed at individuals who speak or write false statements about food products being unsafe for consumption, knowing that the statements they are making or writing are false. Agricultural disparagement laws are also known as veggie-libel law, food disparagement law, or agricultural product disparagement law.
What Is the Difference Between Agricultural Disparagement and Defamation?
As mentioned above, agricultural disparagement laws are very similar to cases of defamation. However, the main difference between disparagement and defamation cases is that the injury done in disparagement cases is done to property, not to a person. Specifically, disparagement is an injury to an economic or property interest that is based on a false statement of fact.
This means that a disparagement defendant would be someone who seeks to prevent others from purchasing the plaintiffs products by making false and negative statements about their food product or the quality of their business.
What Is the History of Agricultural Disparagement Law?
Agricultural disparagement law was essentially created as a result of the airing of a television program known as “60 Minutes” that targeted the apple industry. Specifically, the television program aired a segment on the apple industry’s use of daminozide, also known as Alar, on apples. Alar is a growth regulator that allows an apple to remain on the tree longer, improve the appearance of the fruit, increase the size, and have a longer storage life. The segment opened with a shot of an apple covered in a skull and crossbones and then proceeded to warn the public of the harmful effects of Alar.
Following the airing of the television program regarding the use of Alar, the consumer demand for apples decreased significantly. The economic result on the apple industry was devastating. The apple producers and industry and others that were dependent upon apple production lost millions of dollars, with many persons in the industry losing their homes and livelihoods.
In Washington state eleven growers that were impacted by the television program joined together and filed a disparagement lawsuit against the television program. This case is known as Auvil v. CBS 60 Minutes. The eleven growers argued that there was no scientific study that had been conducted on cancer risks to children from the use of pesticides on apples.
However, the television program’s statement was that the pesticide Alar found on apples was more harmful to children because they eat more apple products per unit of body weight than adults. As such, the grower’s evidence was not enough to prove the falsity of the television program’s statements that the pesticides were more harmful to children. In clarification, the grower’s lawsuit failed because they were unable to prove the falsity of the statement made by the television program. Thus, in order to be successful in a disparagement case, falsity must be proven.
After the case was decided, The agriculture industry responded by lobbying their state legislatures to pass specific agricultural disparagement laws. As of today, the following states have enacted some sort of agricultural disparagement law:
- North Dakota;
- South Dakota; and
The purpose of the agricultural disparagement laws in many states was to bypass the requirement of proving falsity, and protecting statements that could negatively affect the production and revenue of the food industry. Thus, even statements that are truthful could still result in liability if the statements harm the food industry.
How Is Agricultural Disparagement Proven?
As mentioned above, there are many states that have enacted specific laws regarding agricultural disparagement. Although the exact legal elements regarding agricultural disparagement may differ by state, typically the following elements must be demonstrated in order to be successful in an agricultural disparagement lawsuit:
- A statement was made regarding the food industry or a food product;
- The statement made was made either willfully or maliciously;
- The statement made must reach the public
- This means that making a complaint regarding the safety of a product to a state agency is not enough;
- The statement made has to indicate that the food product is unsafe for consumption;
- The statement made has to be not based on any reliable scientific facts or reliable scientific data, and the maker of the statement knows or should have known their statements were false; and
- A reasonable person would have known that such statements would have a disparaging effect on the food product by lowering consumers interest in the product.
Once again, agricultural disparagement laws allow an injured farmer, producer, or food distributor to sue a person that inflicts an economic injury on their business due to their statements. If the injured party is able to prove the above elements, then they will be able to seek economic damages from the individual or group that made the statements. Further, in some states, the person or business that made the statement may face criminal charges.
What Legal Remedies Are Available Regarding Agricultural Disparagement?
Once again, the exact legal remedies that are available to individuals or businesses that suffer harm as a result of agricultural disparagement will be dependent on the specific agricultural disparagement laws that have been enacted in that state. Under most state laws, awards for pecuniary and punitive damages can be sought by the party that is harmed by the statements.
In Colorado, defendants in an agricultural disparagement case can even be subject to criminal charges, on top of civil liability. Most state civil agricultural disparagement laws have a statute of limitations of one to two years. This means that suits regarding agricultural disparagement must be brought within that period of time.
Generally, an injured food producer, farmer, or distributor is limited to the pecuniary losses that resulted from the statements. For example, if a farmer was selling a total of $10,000 worth of a food product a month, but a newspaper released an article stating the farmer’s products were contaminated and the sales of the food product fell to $1,000 a month, the farmer would be limited to recovering $9,000 worth of damages. However, if the statements were made maliciously and proven false, then the farmer may also recover additional punitive damages or special damages against the maker of the statement.
Do I Need an Attorney for Help With an Agriculture Disparagement Claim?
If you are a food producer or involved in the food industry and your sales were impacted by statements made about your product by another party, then you should immediately consult with an experienced personal injury attorney.
An experienced personal injury attorney will be able to advise you as to whether or not an agricultural disparagement lawsuit is available to you given the specifics of your case and your state’s laws. Additionally, an attorney will also be able to initiate a civil lawsuit on your behalf, and represent you in court, as necessary.