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We Looked Back At The Time Oprah Feuded With Big Beef

That Literally Happened! revisited the time Oprah Winfrey found herself in a legal battle with the Texas cattle industry over fears of mad cow disease.

Posted on September 18, 2019, at 2:44 p.m. ET


That Literally Happened!, a new show from BuzzFeed News on Facebook Watch, is revisiting some of the most memorable moments of the ‘90s.

Meatless trends are all the rage today, but big beef had a different enemy in a time before Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat took the world by storm — Oprah Winfrey.

The American cattle industry was already in the spotlight amid growing concerns of mad cow disease in England, but the queen of daytime talk shows ratcheted up the problems for US beef on a 1996 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show.

A discussion with animal rights activist Howard Lyman focusing on mad cow disease put the famous talk show host at odds with the American cattle industry.

With Lyman offering his prediction of widespread impact to American beef from the disease, Oprah declared that the conversation had, “stopped me cold from eating another burger.”

US beef prices sank within two weeks of the show’s airing, eventually sliding all the way to a 10-year low, leading some ranchers to point the finger at Oprah for the drop.

Tensions between Oprah and the cattle industry came to a head in December 1997, when a group of executives filed a lawsuit against the talk show host, blaming her for millions in lost business as a result of statements about beef they believed were false and defamatory.

With a jury trial set to take place in February 1998, Oprah wasn't just going to let some lawsuit force her to go on hiatus. Instead, she brought her entire show to Texas during the trial.

Luke Frazza / AFP / Getty Images

Oprah was prohibited from discussing the trial on television due to a gag order from the court, but that didn't stop the people of Amarillo and her TV audience from putting two and two together.

That Literally Happened! caught up with Larry Lemmons, a former TV reporter in Amarillo who covered the trial extensively.

"It was such a bizarre time for most people because of the fact that Oprah had brought her show to town and celebrities were everywhere," Lemmons said, describing the people of Amarillo as "starstruck" by the spectacle.

The trial pit the talk show host against Paul Engler, a leading cattleman and a popular figure in Amarillo, leaving local allegiances split between the local economy and the star power of Oprah.

"Everybody loves Oprah," Lemmons said. "So on the one hand, they might say, 'Oh, that Oprah, she's tried to hurt our beef industry.' But on the other hand, it was like, 'Oh I watch her every day.'"

Oprah emerged from the courthouse victorious on Feb. 26, 1998, and celebrated the ruling. “Free speech not only lives, it rocks,” she said.

Eric Gay / Associated Press

Despite failing in their effort to take on the queen of daytime television, the Texas Beef Group still viewed the case as a win for the opportunity it gave them to deliver their message on the safety of US beef to the public.

"We do believe that we have made one very strong point, very emphatically, very fair to everyone," Engler told reporters after the ruling. "US beef is safe."

Engler’s words appeared to ring true, at least when it came to mad cow. The United States has experienced just six confirmed cases of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy since the initial fears of an outbreak, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Catch new episodes of That Literally Happened! Mondays on Facebook Watch.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.