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You've surely heard about the political bogeymen "Big Oil" and "Big Tobacco," but when it comes to your freedom to choose the foods you eat, there's no special interest more powerful than "Big Tofu."<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
From attacks on movie theater popcorn to fast food burgers, Big Tofu wants to keep you from dining on steak, French fries, soda and anything else it deems bad for you. The top priority: protect you from yourself by imposing its vegan-leaning, beans-and-rice, "if-it-tastes-good-it-must-be-bad-for-you" views on what constitutes a proper diet.
As laughable as that may sound, the food nannies wield considerable influence in Congress, the media, and state governments. Nowhere has this influence been as strong as in the state of California, where yesterday's anti-establishment radicals are today's elected officials. And, by using its pull in the nation's most populous state, Big Tofu is increasingly in the position to dictate food policy to the other 49.
Take, as an example, the California law known as Proposition 65. Under Prop 65, a product that has any amount of any substance suspected of causing some health effect in some animals has to carry health warning labels. That may sound like a good thing, but the law is most often used by activists to hammer politically unpopular food producers with irrelevant and out-of-context "warnings."
For example, world renowned University of California at Berkeley biochemist Bruce Ames has documented how naturally occurring substances in plants—such as caffeic acid in coffee and limonene in orange juice—are among the most potent carcinogens in the human diet.
As long as the left coast set keeps sipping their cafe lattes, though, you'll never hear about that. Nor should you worry, since there's not nearly enough of either of those substances in your diet to make them dangerous. But under Prop 65, the amount doesn't matter. The law is all about scaring consumers away from foods Big Tofu just don't like.
What makes Prop 65 especially pernicious is its so-called "bounty hunter" provision, which allows anyone to file a lawsuit to enforce the warnings. The latest is a nuisance suit against five popular restaurant chains in California, filed by a group that promotes vegetarian diets. The lawsuits allege that char-grilled beef and chicken supposedly represent a cancer threat because of trace amounts of a substance called pyridine, formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures no different than your backyard barbeque.And California Attorney General Bill Lockyer is suing several fast food restaurants and potato chip makers over a substance called acrylamide, which is formed naturally any time starchy foods are baked or fried. It doesn't seem to matter to Lockyer that the Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have concluded that these naturally occurring levels of acrylamide pose no health threat to consumers. It doesn't matter, because Prop 65 isn't about protecting anyone's health. Its purpose is to promote two of Big Tofu's most important goals.First, however spurious they may be, labels that warn about carcinogens or toxins in food will surely scare consumers away. That's why snack makers and fast food restaurants have been targeted: Big Tofu doesn't think consumers can or should be trusted to choose those foods for themselves.Second, once foods are forced to wear a Prop 65 warning in California, they become targets for ambulance-chasing lawyers around the country. "Of course, the company is guilty," they'll tell juries. "It says right on the label that the product contains a carcinogen." The only alternatives for food companies are to re-label their products for the rest of the country or pay the huge fines that could drive them out of California or out of business. Fortunately, Congress is taking a small step toward stopping this insanity by passing the National Uniformity for Food Act. The proposed law would empower the Food and Drug Administration to set national, science-based food labeling standards. And that will help bring an end to the scaremongering of politically-motivated state rules.Big Tofu's media rampages against Chinese food, fettuccine Alfredo, popcorn, burgers, and soft drinks are hardly news. But too few people know how Big Tofu's legal strong-arming and backroom blackmail ultimately result in higher food prices and fewer choices for consumers. It's time to tell Big Tofu that it doesn't know beans about food science, food safety, or the needs of American consumers. And the National Uniformity for Food Act is a good first step to restoring some common sense to our food labeling system.