FoodPolitik: Laughable food initiatives abound in California

Richard Berman | President, Berman and Company

The comment “Only in California” is hardly ever a compliment. The Golden State is home to wine, fine weather, and (apparently) the world’s happiest cows. But it’s also a stomping ground for radical food politics. The latest casualties are coffee, beer, and potato chips. Are you ready for more cancer warning labels?

Coffee? Cancer? We can thank the euphemistically named “California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986,” also known as Proposition 65.

Prop 65 originally had its voter-approved heart in the right place, identifying hazardous chemicals in drinking water. But “mission creep” is practically a sacrament among government bureaucrats, and “drinking water” has been expanded to just about everything containing an element on the Periodic Table.

Prop 65 requires warning labels on products containing chemicals “known to the State of California to cause cancer.” Violations are enforceable by private citizens who can reap a hefty bounty for successfully suing (or even for negotiating settlements).

A former California Department of Consumer Affairs director recently noted how “bounty hunter shakedowns of businesses have become the norm.” This spring a snack vending company received a $60,000 legal shakedown warning over the potato chips it sells.

The whole idea of “known … to cause cancer” has become vague and watered-down. For the overzealous (who stand to make just as much money as a principled lawyer), “known” could be as wishy-washy as a single poorly designed study showing a vague link.

A chemical called acrylamide, for example, has long been in Prop 65’s crosshairs. Regulators added it to the law’s initial hit list in 1986 because it sometimes turned up in drinking water. Twenty years later, scientists identified it in cooked vegetables, French fries, potato chips, and even roasted coffee beans.

It’s present in incredibly small amounts, of course. A person of average weight would have to eat 62 pounds of chips every day, for an entire lifetime, to reach the acrylamide dose that causes cancer in lab rats. Still, warning labels are warning labels.

Sadly, Prop 65 is not an anomaly. California is quickly becoming the home of laughingstock initiatives that threaten more than just grocery shoppers’ peace of mind.

In 2008, animal rights activists passed Proposition 2. When it takes effect in a few years, this initiative will ban the keeping of egg-laying hens in conventional cages.

Moneyed interests like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS, which doesn’t run a single pet shelter) ran slick ads making Prop 2 sound good—who doesn’t want to help chickens?—while concealing their real agenda. In an unguarded moment, a former vice president of HSUS has confessed that her group’s ultimate goal is to “get rid of the [poultry] industry.” One strategy is apparently to force cash-strapped egg farmers to shell out millions for a costly new infrastructure.

Human nature being what it is, much of California’s egg production may eventually move south to Mexico, where food safety and animal welfare standards are anybody’s guess. (How is that “humane”?)

It gets loonier: Organic-only food activists are gearing up for a 2012 California ballot question that would require labels on foods containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients.

Most modern agricultural technology is taboo in the organic utopia. By raising the specter of (non-existent) risks, activists constantly attack biotech techniques that have been used safely for decades. Even Whole Foods now stocks some GM groceries. If they’re not “pure” enough, somebody’s standards are out of whack.

The general principle of a citizen-driven ballot initiative is a good one. But today radical groups are throwing millions into campaigns whose basic premises are deceptive, and whose arguments kick nuance to the curb.

Some state legislatures can amend ballot initiatives after they pass. Missouri is one. In April a bipartisan majority of Show-Me State lawmakers told the animal rights activists at HSUS to take a hike, repealing the more unsavory parts of an HSUS-funded initiative that eked out a slim victory last fall.

In response, the ultra-liberal HSUS is now working with conservative groups to set a “supermajority” standard for Missouri legislators who want to override future ballot initiatives. With all the strange-bedfellows special-interest money already flooding state legislatures and bankrolling carefully manicured ballot questions, it’s hard to imagine that the result will reflect the sentiment of the electorate.

Ultimately, the right remedy for legislative interference with ballot questions may not lie in merely raising the bar. How about a series of state laws requiring ballot initiatives to essentially stand for re-election every ten years? When public mores change, laws should follow suit. Even activist-written laws.

We could start in California. Potato chip lovers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your warning labels.

Rick Berman is President of the public affairs firm Berman and Company. He has worked extensively in the food and beverage industries for the past 30 years. To learn more, visit http://www.BermanCo.com.

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