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Just like Leo, Oprah once found herself in hot water for saying she was put off eating burgers

There’s also a Dr Phil twist to this story.

Image: UPI/PA Images

WHAT DO LEO Varadkar and Oprah Winfrey have in common? They have both made comments about their eating plans which angered the beef industry.

There was a by now much-publicised row in the Dáil this week between the Taoiseach and a number of rural TDs who were critical about Varadkar’s New Year resolution to eat less red meat. 

He caused quite a stir on Monday when he casually answered a question from a reporter about what he has done to reduce his carbon footprint. 

“I am trying to eat less meat, both for health reasons and for reasons of climate change. But I imagine given the amount of travel I do I am probably not the best example,” he said.

Damaging the farming industry 

Fast forward 24 hours and Varadkar was facing a showdown in the Dáil over his comments, which were brandished as “hugely damaging” to the farming sector. 

You may remember that the US talk show host faced similar criticism 21 years ago.

But in 1998, Winfrey was actually hauled before a Texas court over comments she made about eating beef during her talk show on a segment about food safety.

The episode discussed the issue of mad cow disease, which had recently killed a number of cattle in the UK, and one expert on the show’s panel said it was likely the disease could spread to the US. 

Winfrey declared that the discussion “has just stopped me cold from eating another burger”.

“I’m stopped.” 

Her comments angered the beef industry. A lot.

US cattle producers decided to sue the TV star for making “disparaging statements about perishable food products”.

Some 18 months after uttering those words on her show, she was in an Amarillo court facing off against beef producers. 

Rather than putting her show on hold for the six-week trial, she moved the entire production to the town. Legal analyst and psychologist Phil McGraw worked with Winfrey during the trial. One day, the talk show host said McGraw should write a book, a talk show of his own followed, and that’s how Dr Phil graced our TV screens. 

Beef safety 

According to CNN, during the trial, Winfrey was accused of creating a “lynch mob mentality” among members of her studio audience to produce a “scary” story about the safety of beef. 

“The message of the show was never meant to be where opinions are shared. The show was meant to be scary,” said David Mullin, an attorney for the cattle producers. 

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Winfrey’s lawyers said the programme did not suggest beef was unsafe. Winfrey’s attorney, Chip Babcock, said she did not wake up one day and think “let’s go get the beef industry”. 

After a six-week trial, the jury voted unanimously in Winfrey’s favour. She emerged from the courthouse with her arms raised and said she would continue to use her freedom of speech. 

“I believed from the beginning this was an attempt to muzzle that voice. I come from a people who have struggled and died in order to have a voice in this country, and I refuse to be muzzled,” she said at the time. 

Source: AP Archive/YouTube

While perhaps not as serious as the controversy Winfrey faced over 20 years ago,  Varadkar was forced to reassure deputies this week that had enjoyed a nice steak the night before, telling them he had not become a vegan.

His comments were timely, given the release of a report which found that red meat consumption must halve by 2050 in order to save the planet. 

The Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) Joe Healy said this week that proteins from beef and dairy are an important part of a balanced diet, while Kerry TD Michael Healy Rae who was one of the politicians to criticise the Taoiseach’s remarks, taking to RTÉ’s Joe Duffy Show to lambast the EAT-Lancet Commission report. He also slammed those who encourage people to cut down on their red meat intake. 

But, as the Winfrey trial shows, these arguments are not new. There is big business, climate change and people’s everyday habits involved – dangerous territory for politicians and talk show hosts alike.  

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