U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy
CONTACT: David Carle: (202) 224-3693 Vermont

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy
The First Amendment and Food Safety
April 29, 1998

I support the efforts of the FoodSpeak Coalition to preserve the First Amendment rights of Americans to debate fully and openly the safety and healthfulness of the foods we eat.

I have had some experience with commenting and acting on food safety policy. In 1987, I raised serious concerns about the effectiveness of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) meat and poultry inspection system, which was then mostly based on the visual inspection of meat products zooming down an assembly line. USDA used my recommendations as the basis for a system to help safeguard against microbiological hazards on meat and poultry. Two years later, in 1989, I introduced major legislation to require a comprehensive fish inspection program to assure the safety of the fish products that Americans consume. I introduced that bill because of my concerns over the contamination of fish products with heavy metals and pesticides. In 1990, I fought to keep food products sprayed with pesticides banned in the United States from being imported back into this country. This "Circle of Poison" threatens the health and safety of our children.

Some states permit lawsuits against those who question the safety of our food supply. It is my view that under the First Amendment, Americans possess the right to raise safety and health concerns about the foods we eat, such as the levels of mercury in our fish or the levels of pesticides in imported foods. State laws that permit lawsuits against those who question the safety of foods can have a chilling effect on public health discourse. That is not the American way --healthy debate on issues of public concern is how this country does business.

The FoodSpeak Coalition highlights the chilling effect that these laws have on the exercise of free speech. Defamation laws should not intimidate citizens and the press who want to speak out about food safety.

Americans in all states must be allowed to openly debate issues of public health. For example, one of the pioneers of the movement toward healthier eating --Adelle Davis --raised many food safety and health issues based on her own research. Her views were not accepted by the scientific community at the time. Now the weight of medical evidence --including former Surgeon General Koops’ Report on Nutrition and Health -- has vindicated her views.

The First Amendment should protect full and open debate for all Americans, not simply for those who can afford expensive attorneys.


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