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Jury selection to begin in cattlemen's suit against Oprah

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey arrived at court early Tuesday   
January 20, 1998
Web posted at: 7:59 a.m. EST (1259 GMT)

AMARILLO, Texas (CNN) -- Oprah Winfrey's eating habits have made headlines before. But the talk show host's on-again, off-again diets have nothing to do with the legal battle that brought Winfrey to Amarillo Monday.

Jury selection begins Tuesday in a suit brought by cattlemen alleging that comments on "Oprah" led to a sharp drop in the market for beef cattle.

Winfrey says on her show that she won't eat beef
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Winfrey is being sued under a law designed to protect agricultural products from false and damaging statements. At issue is Winfrey's April 16, 1996 show, featuring vegetarian activist Howard Lyman.

Lyman said that feeding animal parts to cattle -- a practice that was banned in the United States last summer -- could lead to an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephelopathy (BSE), or "mad cow disease," in U.S. cattle. BSE has been linked to a rare brain ailment in humans who eat tainted beef.

"It has just stopped me from eating another burger!" Winfrey responded, to audience applause.

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey   

Beef prices, already low, hit their lowest levels in a decade, says Paul Engler, an Amarillo cattle feeder. Overall, analysts say the drop in the market cost the industry $36 million in the two weeks following the show.

Engler sued Winfrey and Lyman, claiming that he lost $6.7 million because of their remarks.

Check Levitt, a livestock analyst, says the industry was already having problems due to a drought in the Southwest and skyrocketing feed costs. The comments on the show "probably exacerbated the problems the market was having," Levitt says. "It was one more fly in the ointment, so to speak."

Winfrey's influence key to suit

Winfrey, a perennial entry in lists of Hollywood's most influential figures, is considered one of the more credible voices on TV by her fans -- a credibility that, the plaintiffs say, made her statements harmful.

Book stores purchase copies of Oprah's Book Club selections because they sell so well   

"If Jerry Springer had talked about mad cow disease, it would have zero impact," says Jeff Borden of Crains Chicago Business. "Rosie O'Donnell, Geraldo, et cetera, limited impact. When Oprah said it, it had a big impact."

In recent years, Winfrey's influence has extended into publishing -- books featured on her "book club" shows experience a dramatic rise in sales. Her first selection, "The Deep End of the Ocean," had 100,000 copies in print when it was discussed on "Oprah" in 1996; it went on to sell another three million.

In Amarillo, residents are torn. While many condemned the show, tickets for two "Oprah" tapings in Amarillo went quickly. Winfrey's reputation and influence are pitted against those of the beef industry -- which is formidable in a region that produces 25 percent of the nation's beef cattle.

Correspondents Jeff Flock and Patty Davis contributed to this report.


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