California Propositions: Prop 37 – Labeling genetically engineered food

How hot an issue are genetically-modified foods and the debate over Prop 37? We went to a local supermarket and talked with some shoppers to find out:

“It just seems like it’s a no-brainer,” said one shopper. “We need to know what’s in our food and make decisions based on the evidence that we just don’t know enough about GMO’s to expose ourselves and our children to them.”

“If it does pass, it’s going to create a flood of lawsuits against the grocers,” said another shopper. “Against food companies, people who grow food, and it’s just going to make lawyers wealthy.”

That pretty much sums up the debate.

Part of the issue is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear agreement on whether genetically-engineered foods pose a danger to our health. Both sides point to all kinds of reports and experts to back themselves up. But much of the research has been done by people with a vested interest, either for or against GMO’s. And the American Medical Association has called for more testing.[soundcloud id=’65729614′]

In the meantime, supporters of labeling say consumers have a right to know what they’re eating. “Just like we have information about calories, nutrition, allergy information, we would have information that says the product is partially produced with genetic engineering,” said Stacey Malkan with the Yes on Prop 37 campaign.

About half a dozen crops account for most of the genetically-engineered foods in the U.S. At the top of the list: corn and soybeans, followed by canola, sugar beets, papaya, and some zucchini.

Malkan said that under the plan proposed by Prop 37, processed foods that include GMO’s would have a label on the back reading “partially produced with genetic engineering.” For fresh produce, there would be a label on the bin.

Sound straightforward? Critics say it’s not.

“It sets up a very inconsistent system where people will not know if they’re eating GE or not in many cases,” said Kathy Fairbanks, with the No on 37 campaign:

Fairbanks says under Proposition 37, some G-E or genetically-engineered foods would be subject to labeling requirements; some would not. “For example, dairy gets a complete blanket exemption, even though cows eat G-E grains, and cheese is made with a G-E enzyme. Alcohol, too, gets a complete blanket exemption, even though alcohol can be made with G-E ingredients. For example, bourbon is made with corn, and corn in the United States is 80 to 90 percent G-E,” she said.

Meat would also be exempt, even though cows and chickens eat G-E grain. And so would restaurant food. Food that would require a label in a grocery store would not have to be labeled in a restaurant.

California’s legislative analyst estimates the labeling program would cost the state up to $1 million dollars a year to administer.

And then there’s the issue of who’s responsible. Retailers–from the corner grocery store to big supermarket chains–would be required to label bulk foods and produce. And for every product without a label, they’d have to get a sworn statement from the provider—or independent verification.

But what happens if retailers don’t get the labeling right?

“Prop 37 does have the citizen’s right of action whereby companies will be held accountable in court if they don’t label,” said Malkan. “But all that will happen is that they will be ordered to label. There are no damages or money to be made of this or incentives for anybody to sue. It’s just simply a way to hold companies accountable for labeling.”

But critics say it could drive up food costs, unleash a flood of lawsuits, and make it hard for some mom-and-pop grocery stores to stay in business.

Opponents of Prop 37 range from most of California’s major newspapers to small farmers and agribusiness to big food and pesticide companies. The No side has raised more than $44 million so far from the likes of Monsanto, Dupont, and Kellogg—much of it for an ad blitz over the past month or so.

Supporters of Prop 37 include organic and natural food producers. They’ve raised just over $7 million so far and launched their own ad campaign last week in the lead-up to election day.


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  • Michael S.

    I voted for it.

  • Druvillea

    You omitted mention of the fact that 61 countries now require labeling, and some now also ban growing some GMO crops. All of these countries have qualitfied scientists, so the insinuation that people supporting labeling are unscientific or irrationally fearful, is ridiculous. The world's largest agrochemical companies are also the top donors to No on 37, and they hold the patents on transgenic (GMO) seeds and Round-up. They are not spending +$44 million to protect consumers from increased costs, greedy lawyers and loopholes. There is no consumer demand for, or benefit to, transgenic foods (GMO's), only risk, and the only way they can maintain a market for these crops is to keep them hidden as ingredients. On a global basis, GMO's commodities sell for less. It is only when GMO's are invisible that they can sell for the same price, as they do in the USA, so not labeling in the USA is really a price support for GMO's. The definition of market value assumes a knowledgable buyer. Not labeling GMO's forces consumers who want to avoid GMO's to buy much more costly organic foods (a false duality), when lower cost conventional alternatives are available.
    Yes on 37

  • Jessica Hill

    Wow, way to promulgate the misinformation from the no campaign without challenging the blatant inaccuracies! Dairy would not be labelled as genetically modified because the dairy itself is not genetically modified. If someone decides to grow genetically modified cows, then the steak (and the dairy) from that cow would have to be labelled genetically modified. As it is, one proposition is NOT ALLOWED to cover both products that directly contain genetically modified ingredients, and products that indirectly contain GMO's through animal feed. If Prop 37 passes, you can be sure more legislation will follow to address exactly these issues.

    One thing that really irritates me in this whole debate is we're only talking about the health problems related to GMO's, but the environmental problems they cause are totally indisputable! For that reason alone, consumers should have the choice as to whether they want their money going to support that kind of agriculture. But may I remind everyone that the health and safety effects are completely unknown and untested. And this from the same company that insisted Agent Orange and DDT were "tested and safe."

    If people are worried about lawsuits, they should vote YES on 37, because Monsanto, the leading producer of GMO's, is also one of the industry's worst offenders of frivolous and predatory lawsuits. They are using their patents on GMO's to sue small farmers out of business and force independent farmers to buy their products, simply because the farmers can't afford the legal costs to defend themselves against a multinational behemoth like Monsanto.

    PLEASE don't buy into this barrage of misinformation!! Vote YES on 37!

    -Jesse, LA County Master Gardener and mom-to-be

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