A bill that gets dropped in the hopper at a state legislature often starts out as a mini mystery. Who’s behind it? Where did it really come from?  What is it really trying to accomplish?

Colorado House Bill 11-1190–limiting damages against retailers for foodborne illnesses—is just such a bill. Its sponsors are state Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg and state Sen. Cheri Jahn. And they’re not talking.

Sonnenberg is a farmer-rancher from Colorado’s rural eastern plains and Jahn is a suburban politician from populous Jefferson County. He’s a Republican and she’s a Democrat. 

Both serve on their respective chamber’s agriculture committees. He chairs House Ag and she is vice chair of Senate Ag. Food Safety News asked Sonnenberg and Jahn to respond to questions about HB 1190, but neither did so.

As drafted, the bill would greatly limit the liability of food retailers in foodborne illness cases.   It would mean that retailers would be let off from responsibility when their customers get sick unless it could be shown that they were responsible for contamination or had actual knowledge of it at the time of the sale.

Under the doctrine of strict liability, every part of the supply chain is deemed responsible for producing safe food to protect consumers. The Sonnenberg/Jahn bill would provide a “get out of jail free” card for the retail sector.

There is already some confusion about the language of the bill, which has not yet been scheduled for a hearing. The liability limiting language would apply when “jurisdiction cannot be obtained over the manufacturer.”

That has caused some legislative observers to speculate that Lakewood, CO-based Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets Inc. might be behind the bill. It was caught up in the 2009 Salmonella outbreak involving Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), and settled litigation after PCA’s bankruptcy.

The 30-store Vitamin Cottage chain, with units in Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, was grinding organic peanuts from PCA’s Texas facility in early 2009 that were contaminated with Salmonella.