California Right To Know Bill Strikes the Wrong Balance

Last week, the California Assembly’s Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials approved the Consumer Right to Know Act, S.B. 928.  The bill passed the California State Senate last April, and is currently pending in the California Assembly’s Committee on Appropriations.

This bill would ban the manufacture, sale, or distribution of certain consumer products unless the manufacturer publishes a comprehensive list of ingredients on a publicly available website and directs consumers to a web address on the product’s label. The ingredients would have to be identified with a Chemical Abstract Service (CAS) number. Additionally, they should be identified by either the Consumer Specialty Products Association Consumer Product Ingredients Dictionary (CSPA dictionary) name or the International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient (INCI) name.

As originally drafted, the bill applied to all consumer products as defined by the federal Consumer Product Safety Act. As amended, the current bill applies only to “designated consumer products.” So far, those products include: air care products, automotive products, cleaning products, and polish or floor maintenance products. But, according to observers, the scope of products is under review and could be changed by the legislature before enactment.

One huge issue with the bill is its inadequate protection for legitimate intellectual property, including trade secret information.

As it is currently drafted, S.B. 928 purports to protect trade secrets from disclosure, but it also restricts this ostensible protection in several problematic ways.

  • First, “hazardous” ingredients cannot be trade secrets for purposes of the bill. And the bill has an overbroad broad definition of “hazardous.” That is, a “hazardous substance” is defined as a chemical, or chemical compound, including breakdown products, identified by any state or federal agency or other governmental body or the World Health Organization as potentially having properties of eye and skin irritation, sensitization, acute or chronic toxicity, carcinogenicity, cytotoxicity, neurotoxicity, developmental or reproductive toxicity, or both, endocrine disruption or ecotoxicity.  Any chemical has the "potential" to be toxic at the wrong dose. Even substances universally regarded as safe can cause sensitization in a few hyper-allergic persons.

 

  • Second, hazardous incidental ingredients—those without a technical or functional effect, which, for example, can be present in very small quantities from processing or the production of other products—cannot be protected as trade secrets.

 

  • Third, if a product or its ingredients or incidental ingredients can be reverse engineered, it should not receive trade secret protection. Of course, it is impossible for manufacturers to know in advance what is capable of being reversed engineered for the purposes of disclosing ingredients.

Such disclosure of all chemical ingredients in products may lead to final product manufacturers being placed in the awkward situation of asking suppliers to divulge ingredient information, unique combinations of ingredients, and/or formulas that are patented, proprietary, or considered trade secrets. Many times these formulas are provided to final product manufacturers only under confidentiality agreements. The legislation, in those cases, would appear to require manufacturers to violate those confidentiality agreements by disclosing chemical ingredient information.


In addition, the bill requires that a manufacturer complete a complicated and unworkable formal process to have product information protected as a trade secret. This includes a showing of how secrecy leads to value, the ease of duplication if disclosure is made, how the chemical identity relates to how the chemical is made, how the manufacturer maintains secrecy, and how hard it is to reverse engineer the product. Most importantly, this includes disclosure of the basis for the manufacturer’s determination that its ingredients are not hazardous. That is, prove the negative. 

Finally, if the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) determines that the product is not deserving of trade secret protection for any number of listed reasons, including request from the public, the government can affirmatively disclose the product information. In order to prevent disclosure, the manufacturer will have 30 days to file for an injunction. That is an unfair and unworkable time frame.

A coalition of business interests led by the California Chamber of Commerce is opposing the bill on the grounds it increases costs to consumers and will expose confidential business information.  It fears that the definition of product will be expanded "to include everything under the California sun."

The bill would also eliminate trade secret protection after six years unless the manufacturer renews its claim. There is no apparent purpose for such a sunset provision on a trade secret claim other than to burden and place additional expense on the manufacturer. Finally, the bill provides no protections against private rights of action, including actions that may arise under California consumer fraud laws.

We could go on, but isn't that enough reason to conclude the bill strikes the wrong balance?