Why Amarillo's cowboys are not all mad at Oprah

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The Independent Online
Oprah Winfrey's beef trial in Amarillo conjures up images of angry cowboys circling the courthouse waiting to lasso her and drag her through the streets. But David Usborne finds most Texas ranchers ride Dodge four- by-fours these days, not horses. And not all of them want Oprah to lose.

Each spring, cattleman Jerry Curtis spends a week doing what most of us still understand to be ranching. At a friend's spread in New Mexico, he and his wife, Donna, ride horses, round up steers and wrestle them down for branding. But they go for fun. As a living, he laughs, the place "don't pay worth a toot".

What does pay a toot, for sure, is his own cattle-raising business here in the panhandle of Texas. On about 160 acres - just outside Hereford, in Deaf Smith County - Mr Curtis runs Beef-Tech. This is a feeding-station where young animals spend their last months being fattened before being shipped off for slaughter.

To grasp the sheer intensity of Mr Curtis's operation, you have only to glance across his property. It is a checkerboard of iron-fenced pens, each one seething with rump and fur. On a relatively small acreage, there are no fewer than 18,500 head of cattle. Squint a little, and you can imagine walking across their backs from one edge of the pens to the other.

Nor do these animals belong to Mr Curtis. More stock broker than rancher, he is rearing them for other people, individuals from across the United States, who pay him to buy and feed them up. If all goes well they get a decent return when he sends them to market.

Sometimes, of course, things do not go well. Beef prices have taken some knocks of late, notably because of economic problems in Asia and previously in Mexico, which have damaged US exports. And then, almost two years ago, there was a slightly more unusual episode.

It was April 1996, when the talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey dedicated one of her programmes to mad cow disease in Britain. More importantly, she swore off burgers for good after one of her guests suggested that bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was bound to surface in America some day. That has landed her this week in a courtroom in Amarillo, where she faces a $10.6m (pounds 6.58m) lawsuit premised on new and never-before-tested foodstuff disparagement laws.

Like every other Texan cattleman, Mr Curtis was upset by the programme. In the days following its showing, beef cattle futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange took a dive. And what has to be realised, he says, is that it was not so much the ranchers who suffered but those who had invested in the cattle on farms like his. Some were hurt badly enough to get out of beef rearing for good.

Although he insists it should be counted as just one of those unpredictable turns that will always affect the beef market, he has no doubt her comments had an impact: "The way they presented it, I don't think people were given the whole picture and all the facts. It was something of a scare deal and I think some people have stopped eating beef."

He did not, however, join those suing Ms Winfrey. There are risks in taking her to court, not least that if she loses, she might, in her anger, encourage her fans to boycott beef. Given that her show attracts about 20 million viewers, that could be genuinely damaging. He adds: "The disparagement case will be hard to prove, because they will have to show she knowingly lied and I don't think she's that kind of lady."

Naively, perhaps, Mr Curtis hopes the trial will leave the public thinking not about BSE but appreciating the efforts that the industry takes to keep beef safe. His conviction that BSE has been kept out of the American herd is impressive. Tall and lanky with huge hands, Mr Curtis concludes with apparent confidence: "Never say never, but I think it would be impossible for us to get BSE".