We need to talk about ballot initiatives. It a subject that does not come up much in the South and East, but state constitutions mostly in the West contain provisions for Initiatives and Referendums. When adopted late in the 19th Century, Initiatives and Referendums were seen as emergency provisions for the people to take back power from the Legislature if something on rare occasion went horribly wrong. A century later, however, in states like California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, voters are routinely asked to settle questions. About a dozen ballot measures have qualified for the November ballot in California, the once-golden place now sometimes called a failed state. Proposition 37, mandatory labeling for genetically engineered (GE) foods, is one to be decided by California voters in November. It does not mean food safety is on the ballot. It’s unlikely to be brought up much seriously by either side. Instead, the “yes” campaign is going to be built around the “right to know” with GE labeling being the best tool to accomplish it. The “no” campaign is going to be built with multiple arguments, beginning with the prospects for higher food prices. In other words, even though the “organic” label does not mean food is safe, neither would a “genetically engineered” label mean its not safe. Still, there are probably many of you outside of California who are going to be paying attention to Prop 37. So, I thought I should help out and offer some advice. There are three stages in almost every initiative campaign. First, you need someone willing to start the play. Initiatives are the political equivalent of rolling a hand grenade into the political process. It helps if you can find someone who is both rich and crazy. In the second stage, you will usually find zealots who like working in secret because most initiatives are “sprang” on the body politic. The time right before initiatives are printed and circulated for signatures is usually the most dangerous time because it is disconnected from reality. In the third stage, reality sets in with the general election campaign. One rule that always seem to apply to this stage is: “Yes, campaigns drop like rocks.” Motives of proponents become fair game. They can become among many reasons to vote “No.” The question becomes: “Is there a strong enough reason to vote ‘Yes?'” That’s important because an initiative wins with 50 percent plus one vote. Do not pay much attention to early polling. Only when pollsters know what voters are going to see on the ballot can you begin to get accurate survey research results for a ballot initiative. In California, the Prop. 37 campaign is starting from a very lofty place — 91 percent for genetically engineered food labels. That may be, but I have not seen any pollster provide the survey instrument and audience. The Mellman Group, an excellent Democratic pollster, did write about such a poll last April saying “An arresting 91 percent of voters favor an FDA requirement that “foods which have been genetically engineered or containing genetically engineered ingredients be labeled to indicate that.” But wait a minute. There is no FDA requirement, and respondents might well have been led astray by how survey questions were structured and if they were provided with misleading information. Only survey work that approximates what is going to come down the election will be useful. As for the three stages of an initiative campaign, Prop. 37 is right on target. It’s no surprise that the food industry is getting organized to oppose the initiative. About $2 million has been raised for the opposition so far with Pepsi, Coke, and Nestle being among the first in for a campaign led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association. This is a California campaign, so millions more will follow. So far however, proponents are out front with $2.3 million in contributions. First to strike a big check — a nice, cool $500,000 — was Dr. Joseph Mercola’s Mercola.com LLC. He’s added another $300,000 since. He is the rich guy who tossed the political hand grenade. How crazy is he? Ultimately, that’s for you to decide. But, with all due respect to the volunteers who got Prop. 37 on the ballot, we would not be talking about this initiative were it not for Dr. Mercola. He is an osteopath who practices “alternative” medicine from outside Chicago with a web-based direct mail operation that has come in for repeated warning letters from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Illinois doctor has a practice of finding fault with established medical practices, and then substitutes one of his mail order supplements or devices. For example, he thinks women should use his “thermograms,” not those “mammograms.” Mercola is actually against a lot of things, including vaccinations, statins, mammograms, fluoride, amalgams, and flu shots — to name just a few. And, oh yes, he is very much against the FDA. He’s got a collection of warning letters from the agency and the consumer website Quackwatch has been following the issues involved: “In 2005, the FDA ordered Mercola and his Optimal Wellness Center to stop making illegal claims for products sold through his Web site. The claims to which the FDA objected involved three products: – Living Fuel Rx, claimed to offer an “exceptional countermeasure” against cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, etc. – Tropical Traditions Virgin Coconut Oil, claimed to reduce the risk of heart disease and have beneficial effects against Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and many infectious agents – Chlorella, claimed to fight cancer and normalize blood pressure. “In 2006, the FDA sent Mercola and his center a second warning that was based on product labels collected during an inspection at his facility and on claims made on the Optimum Wellness Center Web site. This time the claims to which the FDA objected involve four products: – Vibrant Health Research Chlorella XP, claimed to “help to virtually eliminate your risk of developing cancer in the future.” – Fresh Shores Extra Virgin Coconut Oil, claimed to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and degenerative diseases. – Momentum Health Products Vitamin K2, claimed to be possibly useful in treating certain kinds of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. – Momentum Health Products Cardio Essentials Nattokinase NSK-SD, claimed to be “a much safer and effective option than aspirin and other pharmaceutical agents to treating heart disease.” “The warning letters explained that the use of such claims in the marketing of these products violates the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, which bans unapproved claims for products that are intended for curing, mitigating, treating, or preventing of diseases. (Intended use can be established through product labels, catalogs, brochures, tapes, Web sites, or other circumstances surrounding the distribution of the product.) “In 2011, the FDA ordered Mercola to stop making claims for thermography that go beyond what the equipment he uses (Medtherm2000 infrared camera) was cleared for. The warning letter said that statements on Mercola’s site improperly imply that the Meditherm camera can be used alone to diagnose or screen for various diseases or conditions associated with the breast, they also represent that the sensitivity of the Meditherm Med2000 Telethermographic camera is greater than that of machines used in mammography. “The statements to which the FDA objected included: – “Revolutionary and Safe Diagnostic Tool Detects Hidden Inflammation: Thermography” – “The Newest Safe Cancer Screening Tool” – “Because measuring inflammation through thermal imaging is a proactive, preventative method you can use for detecting disease, which significantly improves your chances for longevity and good health.” – Additionally, thermograms provide: “Reliable and accurate information for diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis.” – “Yes, it’s true. Thermograms provide you with early diagnosis and treatment assistance in such problems as cancer, inflammatory processes, neurological and vascular dysfunction, and musculoskeletal injury.” – “Thermography can benefit patients by detecting conditions including: Arthritis: ‘differentiate between osteoarthritis and more severe forms like rheumatoid.’ Immune Dysfunction, Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue, ‘Digestive Disorders: Irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis, and Cohn’s disease,’ and ‘Other Conditions: including bursitis, herniated discs, ligament or muscle tear, lupus, nerve problems, whiplash, stroke screening, cancer and many, many others.'” According to report in the Chicago Tribune, Mercola opted to just ignore the last warning waiting for FDA to “take it further.” Mercola does better with TV’s Dr. Oz than he does with the FDA. The Dr. Oz website says: “Dr. Oz disagrees with many of Dr. Mercola’s remedies and treatments though he does appreciate how Mercola pushes physicians to think differently about medicine. Most of what the Dr. Oz site has to say about Dr. Mercola seems more cautionary than endorsement, but you can judge for yourself here. Mercola, who has posted videos on YouTube warning about genetically modified foods being dangerous and about the Prop. 37 campaign being an authentic grassroots campaign, may be using the initiative as a way to throw a wench into FDA. FDA has long said there is no difference between GM and non-GM food. Mercola has now donated $800,000 or about 35 percent of all the contributions going to the California Right to Know Campaign for Prop. 37. So, a supplemental pill and medical device mill run out of Schaumburg, Illinois by a doctor with off-the-wall opinions is the primary force behind the California initiative. But the zealots who wrote Prop. 37 might have left behind an even bigger problem, one that is common in initiatives. I think I heard about the specifics of this one on National Public Radio. The problem is the initiative language on “natural food.” If you are thinking that Prop. 37 should just be about GE food, you’ve failed to understand what always seems to happen when zealots draft laws behind closed doors. If Prop/ 37 becomes law, It might not be possible to market a California almond as natural because it is salted or canned, or an apple as “naturally grown” once turned into applesauce and cooked. Both could be free of GE ingredients and still be limited by the plain language of the initiative. Specifically, section 110809.1 of the proposition states: “(I)f a food meets any of the definitions in section 110808(c) or (d) and is not otherwise exempted from the labeling under section 110809.2, the food may not in California, on its label, accompanying signage in a retail establishment, or in any advertising or promotional materials, state or imply that the food is ‘natural’, ‘naturally made,’ ‘naturally grown,’ ‘all natural,’ or any words of similar important…” Section 110808(d) defines the term “processed food” as follows: “Processed food means any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any food produced from a raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, smoking, pressing, cooking, freezing, dehydration, fermentation or milling.” Going overboard in initiative language is just something zealots do. They cannot help themselves and it’s done when there is nobody around to stop them. After failing to achieve their goals at the state legislative level, the zealots love the freedom of the initiative process. We count on the election campaign to prevent mistakes from happening, but there is no amending ballot initiatives. We count on voters to catch poor drafting and over-reaching. That’s why it is not just about the money. Usually, the side with the best brains wins. I would not want to bet on the outcome of this campaign. It’s probably the California Right to Know’s campaign to lose, but I do not count Stop Costly Food Labeling out. My advice for the Stop Costly Food Labeling campaign would be to offer Californians another option. Let’s face it, requiring writing on food packaging is so 20th Century. How about giving consumers a GM App for checking on whether foods are generically engineered? With some out of the box thinking, this campaign could be an opportunity for the food industry. As one who would like to be able to know EVERYTHING, about food, we are all for the “right to know.” Still I am not sure I’d vote for Prop. 37. Some things are best suited to be hammered out the old fashioned way — in Sacramento. California Proposition 37 Summary Requires labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways. Prohibits labeling or advertising such food as “natural.” Exempts foods that are: certified organic; unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material; made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves; processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients; administered for treatment of medical conditions; sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant; or alcoholic beverages. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government: Potential increase in state administrative costs of up to one million dollars annually to monitor compliance with the disclosure requirements specified in the measure. Unknown, but potentially significant, costs for the courts, the Attorney General, and district attorneys due to litigation resulting from possible violations to the provisions of this measure.