In Veggies, Veritas

March 31, 1995|By Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN, Texas -- Former President George Bush might think twice about bad-mouthing broccoli in Texas.

The Texas House tentatively approved a bill Wednesday that would make it possible to libel fruits and vegetables. The bill, being promoted by Texas farmers who don't want people making nasty and unproven claims about their cantaloupe or grapefruit, would give agricultural producers, dairy farmers and others the right to sue anyone who made a "false disparagement of perishable food products."

The bill's sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Bob Turner of Voss, said the measure would apply only to false comments criticizing the health and safety of a product -- not to personal opinions on taste.

"You could say broccoli stinks," explained John Hoffman, a spokesman for Mr. Turner. "But you couldn't say corn is unfit to eat because it would make you sick."

Mr. Turner rejected criticism that his bill would infringe on freedom of speech. Rather, he said, it would protect those who produce perishable products from negative, unsubstantiated statements.

He cited the 1989 Alar apple scare in Washington state. By the time growers refuted the unsubstantiated claims that the pesticide contaminated the fruit, they had suffered devastating economic losses.

Mr. Turner also said Texas cantaloupe growers suffered $12 million in losses in 1991 as a result of unsubstantiated reports of salmonella in the product.

A companion bill is being introduced in the state Senate.

The House bill given tentative approval on an unrecorded vote is a boiled-down version of another measure that would have forced a person who made a disparaging comment about a fruit or vegetable to prove it was true. The amended bill would place the burden of proof on the person bringing the complaint in court.

"I don't see how the original bill would have passed constitutional muster," said Reggie James, a spokesman for Consumers Union. "It was an infringement on the First Amendment. It would have chilled legal speech because people would have been afraid of liability for saying things that were inappropriate."

Still, Mr. James said, it is "troubling that you're going to set out a specific law to protect agriculture producers."

The measure at least provided some comic relief. Rep. Kevin Bailey, a Democrat from Houston, jokingly proposed an amendment that would allow former U.S. presidents to bad-mouth broccoli.

Mr. Bush, who once publicly announced his distaste for broccoli, lives in Houston.

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