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Oprah verdict is no big surprise to Texas ranchers

Marianne Seidenberger and her husband, James, raise top-notch Charolais cattle in Stamford. She's been a regular "Oprah watcher" for years, but will never forget how awful she felt on April 16, 1996.

"I watched her show almost every day - and I still do," Seidenberger allowed. "But that day, I was angry."Seidenberger, like many other ranchers, wasn't surprised when an Amarillo jury on Thursday rejected a cattlemen's lawsuit that claimed televised comments on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) caused the beef market to crash.

"I wasn't at all surprised with the verdict - just disappointed," Seidenberger said.

There's never been a documented case of BSE in the United States. It was first identified in 1986 in Great Britain. The majority of cases have been concentrated there. Scientists say it results from grinding parts of ruminant animals that are then fed to livestock. (The practice is now outlawed in the United States.)

Seidenberger said that after a vegetarian-activist guest said BSE could become a greater problem than AIDS, she was so upset she called the show.

"But I found out the number given on television was just for ordering tapes and transcripts of the show," Seidenberger said. "So I immediately sat down and wrote a letter. I had never been moved to write a celebrity before in my life. I had only written to congressmen.

"Oprah was always upset about what she claimed were half-truths in the National Enquirer and in other tabloids about her," she said. "But to me, that's exactly what she, herself, presented on her show that day . . . half-truths."

Randy Carson, president and co-owner of Abilene Livestock Auction, which also owns Amarillo Livestock Auction, had expected the verdict.

"It's hard to prove intent, malice or whatever they want to call it," Carson said.

When District Judge Mary Lou Robinson ruled on Feb. 17 that the jury could not decide the case under Texas' 1995 False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Law, Carson knew it was the end of the dusty trail for cattlemen.

"I didn't see any way to win, considering her celebrity status and army of lawyers," said Kevin Johnson, a Potosi cattleman. "I'm disappointed. Not surprised."

So, did any good come from the almost two-year ordeal and five-week trial?

"I really wish it hadn't gone to trial," said veteran rancher Tom Stewman of Maryneal. "But at least it came out many times in the testimony that scientific experts agree that we have the safest beef supply in the United States as any place in the world. Hopefully, the public - and maybe even the media - learned that."

State Rep. Bob Turner of Voss, author of the "veggie law," said he doesn't feel the verdict "has any bearing on the '95 law."

"I truly believe the real difference is had meat packers, who do have a perishable product, filed the case rather than live-cattle owners, who in the strictest sense do not have a perishable product to the point the meat packers have, then I think the outcome would have been different."