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California lawmakers' have a lot to chew on

Talk in Sacramento has switched from cash to cuisine as state legislators present bills on blueberries, honey, noodles and more.

September 09, 2009|Eric Bailey

SACRAMENTO — Foodies take note: State lawmakers are angling to protect your pomegranate juice, ensure the sanctity of the honey harvest, promote organic agriculture and get bullish on blueberries.

There may be a recession raging and bigger issues aplenty, but the California Legislature has nevertheless been busy plowing through some of the more esoteric corners of the state's agricultural bounty.

State Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood) has taken on the cause of a Beverly Hills billionaire to ensure consumers seeking 100% pomegranate juice aren't getting watered-down and sugar-sweetened knockoffs.

Assemblywoman Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) has a bill that does the same thing with honey, the target of interests bent on replicating the real stuff with fructose-laced phonies.

For good measure, add the effort by Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) to protect Asian rice noodles from what he considers overzealous state regulators.

Food-related legislation in the Golden State is nothing new. Lawmakers just last year approved a law regulating olive oil purity and labeling.

But a brighter spotlight has been cast on such efforts in this year of fiscal meltdown.

During the budget fight this summer, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took aim at a bill to ban cutting off the tails of dairy cows as an example of misguided priorities at a time of crisis.

Schwarzenegger also criticized a bill that would create a commission to promote California blueberries and Evans' bid to cement what constitutes pure honey.

Now all those bills are headed to the governor, who isn't saying whether his past rebukes will translate into vetoes.

"For him to sign it now might make it seem like he spoke too soon," said Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco), who worries her blueberry bill could be killed despite support from state farmers.

Lawmakers are, in many ways, simply reflecting boutique sensibilities in the land of California Cuisine and celebrity chefs such as Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck. Californians have been early to embrace the burgeoning movement to alter the American diet.

A fundamental shift has occurred in the state Senate. This year lawmakers changed the focus of its Committee on Agriculture, renaming it the Food and Agriculture Committee and stocking it with lawmakers more interested in the concerns of consumers than the needs of farmers. "The consumer now has a seat at the table," said Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), chairman of the committee and author of the bill on tail docking.

One of the more interesting food fights has been waged by Yee, who held a Bay Area media event last month with a Chinatown master chef to protest a crackdown by state regulators on producers of rice noodles.

Yee argued that California's refrigeration requirements ignore an Asian tradition of keeping the noodles at room temperature for up to eight hours. He also plans legislation to reverse the regulatory requirements.

But by far, the most delicious debate has been over pomegranate juice.

Wright is pushing ahead with a bill at the behest of the nation's biggest pomegranate juice producer to impose new regulations to ensure that 100% pomegranate juice is indeed unadulterated.

POM Wonderful, the U.S. market leader owned by billionaire Stewart Resnick and his wife, Lynda, has fought in court against competitors who they say use lower-priced imported juice that's not the pure juice of the pomegranate, one of nature's most potent sources of antioxidants.

That legal action forced one competitor out of business. Lawsuits are still pending against four others, including beverage giants Coca-Cola, Tropicana, Welch's and Ocean Spray.

Matt Tupper, POM Wonderful's president, said the absence of strict regulations forced the firm to "go vigilante" and litigate after it discovered adulterated products sold by competitors.

"At the end of the day, it's about fairness," he said. "It's about fairness to the consumer. It's about fairness to members of the industry who are trying to be honest."

Opponents of the measure, including several growers and rival juice producers, say federal regulations already govern the purity of pomegranate juice. They grouse POM Wonderful is scheming to freeze them out of the market.

They also suggest that a different sort of juice -- campaign cash -- is at issue in the waning weeks of the legislative session.

"It's no secret that the people behind this bill have deep pockets, political and otherwise," said K.C. Pomering, a fifth-generation pomegranate farmer in Madera.

Resnick's family and his firm are reliable donors to California lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, contributing more than $2 million over the last decade to state and federal candidates and causes.

Tupper, however, said the firm is the underdog in this fight, going up against foes who are heavily backed by Coca-Cola and other industry giants.

"I think David could see Goliath's knees," Tupper said. "I'm not sure we could see to their ankles."

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eric.bailey@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The legislative menu

Legislature's bumper crop of food and agricultural measures:

SB 135 (Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter): Would ban amputation of cow tails. Sent to governor.

SB 190 (Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood): Would establish standards for 100% pomegranate juice. In Assembly.

SB 562SB 190 (Florez): Would require warning labels on food produced with nontherapeutic antibiotics. In committee.

AB 606 (Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco): Would create promotional state blueberry commission funded by industry. Sent to governor.

AB 1216 (Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa): Would set stricter definition of honey. Sent to governor.

AB 1401 (Ma): Would provide up to $250 to help farms transition to organic certification. In Senate.

Source: California Legislature

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