Slander applies to Internet: legal warning over food-poison allegations in UK

A warning for armchair epidemiologists: people who make unsubstantiated allegations about food poisoning in reviews on user-generated websites such as TripAdvisor could face legal action.

“It’s almost impossible to say with any certainty that food poisoning came from any one meal, so making these kind of threats could potentially be libellous,” said Mark Harrington, chief executive of Check Safety First, a company specialising in food hygiene checks.

Mr Harrington told The Telegraph that fake restaurant reviews are being used to blackmail hoteliers. “There have been many reports that customers have blackmailed hoteliers by threatening to post false food-poisoning claims on TripAdvisor. It is scandalous.”

The news follows the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) ruling that TripAdvisor can no longer claim or imply that all its reviews can be trusted.

Kwikchex, a reputation management company that brought the case to the ASA on behalf of hoteliers and restaurateurs, said there were thousands of such allegations of food poisoning in Britain and U.S.

“Almost none are reported to the proper authorities, let alone substantiated,” said a spokesman. “Sometimes the reviewer believes it is the truth, but has not reported it and has no understanding of gastro-intestinal infections.

“They usually just pick on the last place where they ate, when in fact the incubation period for such infections is usually one to two days and sometimes as long as a week.”

The spokesman added that this type of allegation can be used by competitors and disgruntled ex-employees to harm the business.

Raw milk rhetoric and those who threaten lawsuits

Three groups or individuals have knowingly tried to sue me for evidence-based food safety statements I have made over the years: a grower of raw sprouts, a grower of organic produce, and The Food Network in Canada.

It’s a telling list, to which the Weston A. Price Foundation can now be added – sorta.

On March 26, 2010, Mike Nichols of the Wilwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel wrote about raw milk, stating,

“… I had to ask the question that everybody is asking of late out in our nation’s capital. I asked it of Kathy Kramer, a nutritionist and office manager at the Weston A. Price Foundation in Washington, D.C., a place that vociferously supports drinking raw milk.

What if you get sick?

‘That is rare,’ she told me, adding that people have been drinking raw milk in some states for a long time.

But what if you do?

‘We just don’t see that as an issue,’ she said.”

Given the number of outbreaks and people barfing because of consuming raw dairy products, especially when compared on a per capita basis – number of sick people per food serving consumed, and the vast majority of people consume pasteurized products – I thought the statement was a little over-the-top and put it in

“"We just don’t see that as an issue.” …

Lots of foods make people sick. Some of these illnesses are easily preventable. For an organization such as Weston Price that is often quoted or cited as some sort of authority on raw milk (or dentistry) to publicly state that people getting sick isn’t an issue demonstrates their priorities – and it doesn’t have much to do with you.

This was re-posted by Seattle-lawyer Bill Marler on his

(I know all this detail is boring and repetitive, but it may be going somewhere.)

Kimberly Hartke, who is apparently the publicist for the Weston A. Price Foundation, e-mailed Marler to say,

“Calling someone a ‘so-called’ nutritionist is as close to libel as I think
you can get.

“Kathy Kramer, when she had this conversation, was not even aware of the
foodborne illness issue going on in Wisconsin. She handles administrative
duties in the office, and doesn’t handle press inquiries, and from what I
understand she was not even aware she was talking to a reporter.

“Perhaps she should find a good attorney!”

Marler told her to talk with, “and if you sue, I would be honored to defend them. By the way, I think WP needs better press people.”

Hartke the publicist then e-mailed me to say the person who originally quoted in the newspaper was,

“… an adminstrative person in our office and does not field press inquiries, I do.

“So, needless to say, her remark is being blown way out of proportion, because it seems inappropriate under the circumstances.

“Please add this as a comment to your blog or tell your readers the truth behind her statement.

“WAPF consumers are extremely health and food safety conscious, which is why we source from local farms. We believe pasteurized, adulterated products of any kind are less safe, less nutritious.”

Marler’s right. This so-called publicist doesn’t seem particularly good at her job. People who proclaim to speak truth are demagogues who should not be trusted because they promote faith-based food safety. I eagerly await the data demonstrating that food from local farms is microbiologically safer that other farms.

And when it comes to data, a raw milk provider at the center of a legal battle in British Columbia told Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper Saturday she isn’t worried about anyone becoming sick from her milk, adding,

“’We do the very best that we possibly can.’ … Those who pay her for the milk and to look after the cows, which are tested annually for various pathogens, can visit the farm any time.”

She said her view is that raw milk is a pure form of God-given food, and business – via pasteurization – changes what’s pure. There have been times she’s wanted to stop the dairy, but her strong faith kept her going.

Similarly in Indiana, Kyra Miller said of the milk in stores,

"I would not call it a God-given food."

Instead, as she picked up milk from Forest Grove. "I’m getting it natural, straight from the cow. I know there’s no extra additives. I know his cows are grass-fed."

Grass-fed cows as a source of supposedly safe raw milk is another source of faith-based food safety. Trust is the essence of almost all food purchases. But data is required to verify that trust. And with these raw milk pushers, it’s just not there. Trust, but verify.