As we consider the present situation in Washington, and the country as a whole, we vividly recall a speech made four decades ago by Benjamin Montee of Cater-Vend (Jacksonville, IL). He served as chairman of the National Automatic Merchandising Association in 1973, and in his annual address to the membership, he proposed a thought experiment.
"Imagine that you woke up one morning and found that the President of the United States was a vending operator," he said. "And you found that the Vice President, the Senate majority leader and the Speaker of the House of Representatives also were vending operators. Wouldn't you stop and think, 'These vending operators are taking over the world?'
"Now, substitute 'lawyer' for 'vending operator'..."
This exercise often has come to mind since then, perhaps most recently when the voters of California defeated a proposed initiative that would have required labels on food items that contain "genetically engineered organisms." Supporters of this measure represented its purpose as, simply, enforcing the public's right to know what is in the food they buy.
Opponents, however, pointed out that the measure, as worded, would allow anyone to file suit requiring a reseller and the manufacturer of any food product to prove that no GEO had been used in its preparation. The parts that caught our eye provided that "...the person [bringing the action] shall not be required to allege facts necessary to show, or tending to show, lack of adequate remedy at law, or to show, or tending to show, irreparable damage or loss, or to show, or tending to show, unique or special individual injury or damages." And "...the court may award to that person, organization, or entity reasonable attorney's fees and all reasonable costs incurred in investigating and prosecuting the action."
In other words, anyone making or selling a food item would be required either to prove innocence or to pay damages and costs -- without anyone's having demonstrated that anyone was harmed.
During the campaigns waged for and against this measure last year, what alarmed us was that we saw no indication whatever that anyone who favored it was able to recognize that, as worded, it was radically unjust and, in fact, apparently had been created as a sort of piñata for personal-injury attorneys. Supporters just recited, over and over, that Big Corporations were spending billions to obstruct the public's right to know. No one proposed to change the wording in ways that would make the measure more congruent with the Anglo-American legal tradition.
Also alarming was the fervent support shown for the measure by many producers of specialty food items aimed at the natural-foods market niche. They are able to source non-genetically-modified ingredients, because their clientele chooses its purchases on grounds other than economy. And, of course, they are not at all averse to creating impediments for larger, mass-market suppliers. We've come to expect that; Lenin supposedly quipped that when the time came for him to hang the capitalists, the capitalists would sell him the rope.
That is neither here nor there, nor do we propose to discuss genetic modification. What we are calling attention to is, first, an increasingly aggressive view of the purpose and practice of law, and second, the skilled use of indirection by those seeking to profit from sowing public mistrust of the nation's food supply, and in fact of "big corporations" in general. Many hope to benefit from this mistrust, and its consequent demand for government protection against the system that has given us the world's safest food supply. Life expectancy in the U.S. increased from 49.2 years at the turn of the 20th century to 77.5 years in 2003, and the widespread availability of wholesome food at reasonable prices surely has contributed to that.
The food industry has a story to tell, but the indirection tactics we mentioned above have made it increasingly difficult for the major players to receive a fair hearing. The vending industry, like small grocers and other food retailers, can step up. Here, again, is where effective trade associations come in. No one operator can do much unaided. Discussion, cooperation and informed collective action are needed, and a trade association exists to coordinate those necessities.
The British statesman Edmund Burke famously wrote, "Where men are not acquainted with each other's principles, nor experienced in each other's talents... no friendship, no common interest, subsisting among them ... it is evidently impossible that they can act a public part with uniformity, perseverance, or efficacy. In a connection, the most inconsiderable man, by adding to the weight of the whole, has his value, and his use; out of it, the greatest talents are wholly unserviceable to the public.
"...When bad men combine, the good must associate," Burke warned; "else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."
There never has been a better time to get involved in defending the industry.