Food Disparagement in Florida

By Jesse Haskins on December 8, 2020

Food Disparagement in Florida

 

Florida is one of thirteen states that have a specific “agricultural disparagement” statute. These are laws passed by the legislature that deal just with food. The law is essentially defamation for food.

 

The Florida Legislature stated the specific reason for passing the agricultural disparagement statute: “The production of agricultural food products constitutes an important and significant portion of the state economy and that it is imperative to protect the vitality of the agricultural economy for citizens of this state by providing  a cause of action for agricultural producers to recover damages for the disparagement of any perishable agricultural product.”

 

When it comes to laws, the devil is in the definitions. Not dictionary definitions, but whatever definition the Legislature comes up with. The Florida Legislature defines “disparagement” to mean “the willful or malicious dissemination to the public in any manner of any false information that a perishable agricultural food product is not safe for human consumption. False information is that information which is not based on reliable, scientific facts and reliable, scientific data which the disseminators knows or should have known to be false.”

 

The Legislature’s definition of disparagement imposes several requirements to show that as a matter of law, someone talked bad about food. First, the bad talk cannot just be by accident. It has to be either “willful or malicious.”

 

Second, word has to get out “to the public.” Complaining to a stage agency like the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is probably not going to cut it.

 

Third, the information has to indicate that the food is “not safe for human consumption.” Statements about how food is sourced does not count as food disparagement under this statute, although there may be other claims available under defamation law.

 

Finally, the statement has to be false. But what does false mean? Not what common sense says it is. The Legislature says false information means “information which is not based on reliable, scientific facts and reliable, scientific data which the disseminator knows or should have known to be false.” So if there is just some type of theory about unsafe food, without underlying facts to back it up, this information may be considered “false” under Florida’s food disparagement law.

 

Florida’s agricultural disparagement statute is a useful tool to protecting the reputation of food, but it is not the only method of fighting falsehood. Defamation law provides several different mechanisms to protecting the reputations of businesses and individuals. The business of food is no exception.