Credit: Harpo, Inc./George Burns

From Mad Cow to Goop

How a group of Texas cattle ranchers sued Oprah and inadvertently created the self-care industry.

The You-Get-A-Car episode. The Tom Cruise couch-jumping episode. The confronting James Frey episode. The Dr. Oz talks about poop episode. You can easily find these iconic moments and thousands more from Oprah’s 25 years on daytime television archived online.

But you won’t find the episode from April 16, 1996 anywhere. It only aired on that single date and copies were reportedly destroyed by Harpo Studios (official transcripts are not even available). The episode led to the biggest lawsuit of Oprah’s life and jeopardized the entire future of her show. It was titled “Dangerous Foods.”

It’s the episode where Oprah told America to stop eating beef.

At the beginning of 1996, the world learned that British cattle had been infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which was transferable to humans in the form of a fatal, incurable neurological disease. There was a panic. By March, the European Union had banned all British beef imports to the continent and McDonald’s suspended sales of beef products in its British restaurants. The country’s beef industry plummeted.

In America, thankfully no cases of “Mad Cow Disease” had been reported, but that didn’t prevent the fear and hysteria from growing. Why were people getting sick? How was the disease spreading? Was our food safe?

This was the perfect opportunity for Howard Lyman to make his case. Lyman was a fourth-generation cattleman from Montana who had done the unthinkable: he became a vegetarian. (Remember, this was a time when vegetarianism was regarded as a kind of new age cult. What better way to show how much of a weirdo Phoebe from Friends was? The term “vegan” was barely even in use; most referred to themselves as “strict vegetarians.”) More than just refusing to eat meat, Lyman had decided to become an unlikely spokesperson for the U.S. Humane Society and advocated against the entire meat industry.

During his years living and working on cattle ranches, Lyman had witnessed parts of cows and other animals ground up and used as feed. (The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association claimed it had since instituted self-imposed regulations to prevent this from happening.) Lyman did not believe that beef was a morally sustainable commodity. Now, it had become deadly.

Lyman appeared on Oprah’s “Dangerous Foods” episode and told her audience what he had seen. He feared that because sick cows might be used to feed other cattle, mad cow disease could potentially spread out of control.

Oprah looked at her audience, stricken. “Now, doesn’t that concern y’all a little bit right here, hearing this?” she asked them.

“It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger.”

The cattle market had already been declining, but within an hour of The Oprah Winfrey Show airing, cattle futures prices went into such a free fall that trading on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange had to be suspended for the day. The panic led to a plunge that in just three weeks cost the cattle-feeding industry an estimated $87.6 million.

This was the “Oprah Crash.”

Paul Engler had a mean sense of humor. At 68 years-old, he was one of the richest and most powerful cattlemen in Texas. One of his favorite things to do was take people up in a helicopter above his vast property of feedlots and show off a lake glistening in the sunlight. Only when guests got closer did they realize the lake was really a giant pool of cow piss.

Engler’s company, Cactus Feeders Inc., had supported the Texas legislature’s passage of the False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act in 1995. This was one of several “veggie libel” laws passed in various states in the 1990s intended to hold people liable for defamation against agricultural products. All of this was in response to a failed 1989 lawsuit by apple growers in Washington against 60 Minutes, but many experts thought the new libel laws wouldn’t hold up in court. Paul Engler was about to find out.

In December of 1997, Engler and group of fellow Panhandle cattle ranchers filed a lawsuit against Oprah Winfrey, Harpo Studios, and Howard Lyman. Engler believed he was standing up for his industry and his way of life. He was emboldened by supportive letters from ranchers across the country, as well as Texas Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry, who told Engler to “go over and blow the hell out of them.”

Amarillo courthouse mural (by Julius Woeltz)

Many lawyers, including Oprah’s (Dallas resident Charles “Chip” Babcock), thought the lawsuit would be dismissed by the Northern District of Texas in Amarillo. They underestimated Judge Mary Lou Robinson, a graduate of Amarillo High School and the University of Texas School of Law, who was the first female appellate judge in Texas and later the state’s first female chief justice.

Judge Robinson ruled that the suit was valid and set the trial to begin in January 1998. She also believed that an impartial jury could be selected right there in Amarillo, where a slaughterhouse was the largest private employer and a third of the country’s cattle supply was kept within a two-hour drive.

Phil McGraw flew from Dallas to meet with Oprah at her Harpo headquarters in Chicago. McGraw had been hired by Babcock as a consultant to prepare the defendants for trial. But Oprah was not interested in a prep meeting. In fact, she wasn’t interested in attending the trial at all. Oprah was earning nearly $97 million a year and could not stop production of her show to appear in court. She pressed for Babcock to settle.

But McGraw knew she had to fight. This lawsuit was only the beginning and would open the door to more people seeking damages for anything she said on the air. “If you fight this to the bitter end, the line at the Sue Oprah window is going to get a lot shorter.” And Oprah’s best shot at winning this trial, McGraw explained, was to win over the jury pool.

So Oprah took her show to Amarillo. The town of less than 200,000 was quickly overrun with news vans and productions crews. For a month, Oprah taped her shows at a community theater and local telephone lines were jammed with ticket requests. She ingratiated herself with the residents, who held signs of support outside the courthouse, and even called the mayor’s wife to ask for a hair salon recomendation.

Judge Robinson issued a gag order on Oprah, restraining the host from discussing any aspect of the trial on television. Her Texas-themed broadcasts, then, were presented with no context. Except, Oprah being Oprah, she managed to bend the rules a little. (“We’re down here in Amarillo—y’all know why.”) Her guest list for those episodes was packed with Texan icons like Clint Black and Patrick Swayze, who talked about a recent barbecue. “You had beef, did you?” Oprah asked him with a smirk. “That’s just fine by me.”

Not everyone was so easily charmed. Trucks in town sported bumper stickers that read: “The Only Mad Cow in Amarillo is OPRAH.” People wore buttons with Oprah’s face crossed out. The conservative Judge Robinson required all women in her courtroom—including Oprah—to wear long skirts instead of pants.

The trial did not begin favorably for Oprah. Engler and the other ranchers presented as sympathetic business owners who had been forced to lay off longtime employees because of the market crash. They never fed cow parts to their cattle. To prove his point, Engler even mixed up a batch of plant-based feed in front of the jury. Further, the rancher’s official rebuttals to Lyman’s claims had been cut from the “Dangerous Foods” episode by Oprah herself (because the cattle representative was boring, her producers said).

Babcock and Oprah’s defense team argued that the Disparagement Act specifically pertained only to “perishable” foods. Engler and his co-plaintiffs sold cattle, not beef, therefore the law did not cover them. It may have been a logical legal argument, but it was hardly a moving plea to the local jury.

Oprah was losing, and she knew it. In the middle of the night, she walked down the hall of the bed-and-breakfast her team had taken over (dubbed Camp Oprah) and knocked on McGraw’s door. She was frustrated by the unfair lawsuit and angry that she was being told by a group of older white men what she could and couldn’t say.

That was precisely the argument McGraw wanted her to make in court. Oprah had no intention of getting on the stand; she resented the idea of being humiliated by Engler’s attorneys. So McGraw offered some tough love: if she didn’t make her case to the jury, she was going to lose. This wasn’t about disparagement or perishable foods, this was about free speech. The jury had to understand that if they took away Oprah’s right, then someone could come along and take theirs. That’s what the jury needed to know.

And Oprah needed to be the one to tell them.

So, halfway through the third week of the trial, Oprah ascended the courthouse steps holding the arm of her close friend Maya Angelou, finally prepared to take the stand. Engler’s lawyer began with a barrage of questions about Oprah’s editorial process and accused her entire production team of negligence. He was loud and hostile. At one point, Oprah asked the judge if the attorney could step back because he was spitting on her. (Judge Robinson did not grant her request.)

Finally, Oprah leaned into the microphone. “I provide a forum for people to express their opinions. This is the United States of America. We are allowed to do this in the United States of America.” Engler’s lawyer tried to finish his cross-examination, but Oprah would not be interrupted.

“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 continued. “I am a black woman in America, having gotten here believing in a power greater than myself. I cannot be bought. I answer to the spirit of God that lives in us all.”

By the time Babcock made his closing statement, asking the jury not to “silence one of the powerful voices of good in this country” and protect their own rights of free speech, the verdict had all but been decided. Outside the courthouse, public opinion had already turned against Engler and his supporters. The Dallas Morning News called them “crybaby cattlemen” and “spoiled children.” Rick Perry, now planning a run for lieutenant governor, distanced himself from the lawsuit. Skip Hollandsworth and Pamela Colloff concluded in Texas Monthly:

Was it possible … that this black urban woman embodied all the rugged, heroic qualitites that we used to look for in the great Texas men of the past, men who had tamed the vast frontier? Men who believed they could accomplish anything? Men who didn’t need lawyers to help them earn a living?

When The Oprah Winfrey Show launched in 1986, it had virtually the same format as The Phil Donahue Show, which established the standard for daytime talk shows. Oprah brought a dynamic personality and inquisitive perspective that immediately connected with audiences, but she tackled many of the same topics: news stories, relationships, true crime, weight loss and makeovers, and celebrity interviews. (Episodes like her town hall with unabashed racists in Forsythe County, Georgia—billed as a place where no black person had lived for 75 years—were truly groundbreaking and presented as only Oprah could, but these moments were exceptions to the usual schedule.)

By 1998, Oprah was still the undisputed Queen of Daytime, but there were many more imitators crowding the airwaves. Ricki Lake and Maury Povich pushed the limits of relationship confrontations and reveals, then Jerry Springer passed both in the race to the bottom of decency. Rosie O’Donnell gained popularity by offering lighter counter-programming of humor, music, and celebrities.

Oprah always told her producers to run their own race and not pay attention to what other shows were doing, but she knew something had to change. Ever since a sweeps episode featuring a hostile interview with skinheads, Oprah had tried to steer the show away from sensational topics. She started a book club. But the experience in Texas encouraged her to take things further. Pleading her case in front of that jury ignited an ambition to create truly transformative television. Oprah wanted to make Change Your Life TV.

When the show moved back to Chicago, Oprah asked her producers only to pitch ideas with intention. The meaning of that term was nebulous to her staff at first, but they eventually came to understand that Oprah wanted to produce shows with a purpose. She wanted to inspire her audience. She wanted to provide therapy. She wanted to discuss health. She wanted to help people live their best life.

Oprah also convinced her trial consultant to come on her show and offer his sage advice to guests. She found Suze Orman to talk money and Deepak Chopra to talk spirituality. This was the beginning of a focus on wellness and self-care that has since become intertwined with nearly every facet of modern life, as the New York Times recently noted:

Summer-solstice sales are wellness. Yoga in the park is wellness. Yoga at work is wellness. Yoga in Times Square is peak wellness. When people give you namaste hands and bow as a way of saying thank you. The organic produce section of Whole Foods. Whole Foods. Hemp. Oprah. CBD. “Body work.” Reiki. So is: SoulCycle, açaí, antioxidants, the phrase “mind-body,” meditation, the mindfulness jar my son brought home from school, kombucha, chai, juice bars, oat milk, almond milk, all the milks from substances that can’t technically be milked, clean anything. “Living your best life.” “Living your truth.” Crystals.

Oprah’s protégés have gone on to create wellness empires of their own, and even after her show has ended, Oprah continues to feature life coaches like Martha Beck and the benefits of transcendental meditation in her magazine. Other famous personalities have successfully continued Oprah’s legacy of promoting wellness products and creating lifestyle brands built around self-care. Jessica Alba’s Honest Company and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, for example, represent a nearly $2 billion combined valuation.

With her final remarks inside that Amarillo courthouse, Oprah unintentionally laid out the mission statement for the future of her career. Refuting the claims against her, she admitted that she did not have as much influence over her audience as the plaintiffs believed. She couldn’t drive Americans away from eating beef even if she wanted to.

“If I had that kind of power,” Oprah explained to the jury, “I’d go on the air and heal people.”