Ex-Cattleman's Warning Was No Bum Steer

by Reilly Capps

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 2, 2004


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.......There's a stereotype about vegans. That they're zealots, loud-mouthed people who throw blood on meat-fattened CEOs, who ridicule people who wear leather shoelaces, who corner you at parties and assault you with diatribes about cruelty.
.......Howard Lyman, 65, is not like that. For 40 years, he raised cattle on his family ranch in Montana, where steak and hamburger were regular courses. Then one day he quit. A tumor in his spinal column helped him make the decision. Meat, he was convinced, was killing him. And beyond that, he began to believe that meat, as it is produced today, is snuffing out small farms and possibly even opening the door to strange and terrifying diseases.
.......Back then he was a quiet man, not one to make a fuss over other people's food choices. But all the while he kept reading more and more about a strange disease they'd seen in Britain, one that made cattle collapse and, in a few cases, sent humans into spasms, eventually causing death. Lyman went to talk to the families of the dead and became even more convinced that it was the way humans were treating the animals that was at the root of it.
.......He became an expert on the way animals are raised and slaughtered. And he feared that the U.S. food chain was also at risk. He knew that animals were being fed to animals and that some scientists believed that diseases like mad cow could be transmitted by other species as well. It was, he thought, an ugly picture. And he said so on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in 1996. He said he thought that things could go wrong in the United States as they had in Britain, and if they did, mad cow disease could make AIDS look like the common cold.
.......For six years he said what he thought to anyone, from community groups to members of Congress.
.......Few were convinced.

.......On Dec. 23, it became a whole lot easier to believe.
.......Nobody knows how big the mad cow disease problem is, and if you say there is a substantial risk the meat industry would offer a strong rebuttal. But there is a problem, and it turns out Lyman may have been ahead of his time when he raised a red flag about it in 1996, when he claimed that mad cow disease had already come to the United States. The discovery of one downed Holstein in Washington state last month makes even more plausible that there may be another, Lyman believes. "Anybody who thinks we only have one mad cow in America," he says, "is smoking the number one crop out of California."
.......Those are fighting words to the agriculture industry. And although Lyman will tell you he's never uttered a mean word in his life about celery or animals or cows, the Texas legislature was sympathetic to the industry. In the early '90s, it passed the False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act.
.......What Lyman said was that the modern, factory-style method of churning out millions of tons of meat each year lacked quality controls that would have caught and prevented diseases such as mad cow from entering the food stream. Modern meat production, Lyman said, was a death machine. He told Oprah Winfrey and her viewers that on the 1996 show. She vowed: "I will never eat a burger again."
.......Two weeks later, Lyman and Winfrey became the first to be charged with making false and disparaging statements about food. He was hated in Texas.
Bumper stickers blared: "The Only Mad Cow in Texas is Oprah." In 1998, a jury said that Lyman and Winfrey were not liable, but a group of livestock owners filed a second suit. The case dragged on for four years.
Finally, a U.S. District Court judge laid the matter to rest.
.......Lyman had not said anything knowingly false about the meat industry, the judge determined. "Every word Howard Lyman said was true," she wrote in her 2002 decision.
The typical person who had spent the past six years in court might have celebrated his vindication at that point. Not Lyman. So when the headlines proclaimed what the industry said was not possible, that mad cow disease had once again struck, Lyman was circumspect. In his mind, it was hardly cause for celebration. "That's not my style," says Lyman, who has given up not only ranching but also lobbying. He now lives in Alexandria.
.......If you ask him, he will suggest that we are looking at the possibility of a terrible epidemic. "Do the math," he says. "Any scientist will tell you that one mad cow tells you there are thousands more." He says this quietly. The facts, he believes, will ultimately speak for themselves.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

Also See: Howard Lyman's book Mad Cowboy, reviewed in Featured Books Archive

   What Lyman said was that the modern, factory-style method of churning out millions of tons of meat each year lacked quality controls...Modern meat production, Lyman said, was a death machine.

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