On the trail of a

In the state Capitol, there always are rumors of "juice" bills. But here's a real juice bill.

The issue is pomegranate juice, a tart, healthful beverage rife with anti-oxidants and increasingly popular with the public. About four out of five pomegranates are grown outside the country. Of those grown in the U.S., most are grown in California, where some 250 farmers produce commercial pomegranates on some 35,000 acres, according to a Senate analysis. The yield is worth about $75 million annually.

"There is no doubt that if this bill gets approved there is going to be a turf war," said K.C. Pomering, a fifth-generation pomegranate farmer in Madera. "The question is, do we really need this?"

The largest producer and distributor of pomegranate juice in the country is POM Wonderful, which is owned by California billionaire Stewart Resnick, a significant figure in California politics and the owner of Paramount Farms, the Franklin Mint and Teleflora. Resnick is a major donor to legislators of both major parties and to political campaigns, including more than $197,000 in 2007-08. The "Wonderful" in POM Wonderful, aside from the marketing benefit, also refers to a variety of pomegranate known as a Wonderful, grown in California. There are at least 300 varieties of pomegranates. All of POM Wonderful's pomegranates are grown in the California's Central Valley.

POM Wonderful and a coalition called the Partnership for Unadulterated, Real and Ethical Pomegranate Juice want California to adopt stringent rules governing the ability of pomegranate-juice sellers to list their product as "100 percent pure."  POM notes that it doesn't buy foreign pomegranate juice – which may be cut with filler juices – and that it is the "only brand that controls its pomegranate juice from tree to bottle."  

"POM is the only brand guaranteed to contain 100 percent authentic pomegranate juice," POM Wonderful says on its web site, noting that a number studies have documented the health benefits of pomegranate juice.

POM and its allies —  who, somewhat surprisingly, include the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — backed a bill that earlier set forth a series of scientific markers, based on information developed by studies that, among other things, detailed the chemical profile that contains the attributes of pure pomegranate juice. AFSCME said the bill extols truth in advertising and that any dilution of pomegranate juice cuts its health benefits.

According to rivals of POM, those characteristics essentially gave POM Wonderful a competitive edge by freezing out other pomegranate producers whose product didn't meet the chemical profile in the bill. The company itself said POM Wonderful was unique. "All of these studies featured patients who drank POM Wonderful 100 percent Pomegranate Juice, not any other brands." The rivals include farmers and a national association representing juice producers, along with the California Nevada Soft Drink Association, which has members that own juice companies.

The author of the bill, SB 190 by Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, has flatly rejected suggestions that the bill is intended to benefit POM Wonderful or any other single company. Studies of 45 different kinds of pomegranate juice from 23 different manufacturers showed that six of the 23 produced juice that met the 14-point criteria, not just POM Wonderful. The specifications by an entity called the International Multidimensional Authenticity Specification, or IMAS, were included in the bill. 

But the Senate was suspicious, fearful that the legislation primarily benefited POM Wonderful. The upper house, which amended the bill five times, approved Wright's legislation in a 36-1 bipartisan vote, but not before the specific IMAS criteria had been stripped from its language, among other changes. The result: The bill now requires the state Department of Public Health – which has opposed the bill as unnecessary — to study the issue and write regulations in two years.  But there are rumors in both houses of the Legislature that the language removed by the Senate will be restored in the Assembly. A hearing was planned Tuesday in the Assembly Health Committee.

On July 1, the bill was changed – again – to say the proposed regulations would apply "regardless of the origin or source of the pomegranates." The change occurred the same day that the Senate approved the bill. The lone dissenting vote was Sen. Mimi Walters, an Orange County Republican.

Critics believe the issue is federal, not state. "Every juice, not just pomegranate is regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). This bill ties the hands of California processors. What if Washington state has its own rules, or Florida does the same thing with orange juice? We have federal standards already in place," Pomering said.

"The bill keeps changing. It's a chameleon," Pomering added.

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