California Propositions: Prop 37 – Labeling genetically engineered food

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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.

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.