We reported about two years ago that the deceptively named “Physicians Committee” for Responsible Medicine (PCRM)—really an animal rights group with few actual physicians—filed a “toxic tort” lawsuit in California over chicken. Citing the Golden State’s “Proposition 65” law, PCRM wants to force restaurants to post a cancer warning about a chemical (called “PhIP”) that naturally appears when meat is grilled. Last week the California Court of Appeals ruled in favor of PCRM on a procedural technicality, finding that federal law can’t pre-empt “Prop 65” requirements. The case now goes back to the trial court, but PCRM shouldn’t break out the champagne and (fake) brie just yet.
The court tossed PCRM a legal bone while torpedoing its entire rationale for warning labels on chicken. Judge Jeffrey W. Johnson writes for the unanimous court:
[W]e note that the language of the warnings proposed by PCRM cannot be considered clear or reasonable. There is no allegation in the record that all cooked chicken contains PhIP; the only allegation is that grilled chicken contains some level of the chemical…
Critically, we note that there was no showing in the trial court that Proposition 65 warnings are required. First, there was no evidence that PhIP levels are high enough to justify Proposition 65 warnings. Second, the regulations implementing Proposition 65 contain a provision, not cited by the parties on appeal, which allows higher levels of carcinogens such as PhIP when cooking is necessary to eliminate microbiological contamination.
This is important. PhIP forms in microscopic levels when you grill chicken. But if you don’t cook the chicken properly, there’s a chance of getting a bacterial sickness—and that risk is much higher than anything that could happen from tiny traces of PhIP.
So while PCRM’s vegetarian legal warriors may have won a small battle, it looks like they’re doomed to lose the war. The California Attorney General’s office has also spoken out against PCRM’s logic. And rightfully so. This case was always about furthering an animal rights group’s quest to stigmatize animal protein in consumers’ eyes. Think we’re exaggerating? Forbes writer Daniel Fisher gets to the bottom line (emphasis added):
I asked Mark Kennedy, PCRM’s associate general counsel, whether consumers are served by reading warnings about every cancer risk, no matter how small or disputed (there’s no clear evidence humans are getting cancer from eating grilled meat, only that PHiP might kick off cancerous mutations in large enough doses.) … What about plant-based carcinogens? Is PCRM as committed to warning consumers about them?
“These are all things to consider,” he said, quickly adding that PCRM’s campaign against grilled meat is part of a larger effort to educate consumers about “the benefits of a plant-based diet.” Now we’re getting to the nut of this case: It’s about PHiP, yes, but it’s also about an activist group’s idea of what we should be eating, instead of what we are. Keep that in mind when the warnings go up.
We’re glad someone at PCRM is—finally—being adequately transparent about what the group is really all about. If only PCRM would change its name to the “Phony Committee for Restricting Meat,” maybe everyone would get the joke. But we’re not holding our breath: PCRM general counsel Dan Kinburn has vowed to bring lawsuits against “virtually every restaurant in the state of California that is not serving an all-vegetarian diet.”