Watch What You Say About My Rutabaga

Hate broccoli? Strawberries make you sick? Better beware what you say about such products: Libeling legumes and other growing things could get you sued for big money.

Call it revenge of the vegetarians. States including Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, and Louisiana have passed what lawmakers call "vegetable disparagement" laws. The movement is becoming widespread. Similar bills were considered recently in Wash- ington, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

Intended to protect local farmers, a new Florida law is pretty typical: It allows growers to sue anyone who publicly declares that the state's fruits, vegetables, and other "perishable" food items are unsafe to eat--if the claim can't be backed up with scientific proof. The Florida law goes so far as to authorize both punitive and triple damages for intentionally badmouthing its bounty.

Such veggie protection laws grew out of the 1989 Alar scare in Washington State. Unproven claims about the chemical's safety cost the apple industry alone some $100 million as panicked consumers stopped buying.

Farmers across the country argue that they feed the extra protections. Environmentalists and civil liberties advocates, however, say the disparagement laws offend free-speech rights and are unconstitutional. This question is coming to a head: A lawsuit seeking to have the Georgia law thrown out could decide the issue. Until then, you broccoli-bashers out there take heed.

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