Proposition 37's Flaws Dampen Support For Labeling Genetically Modified Foods
Somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of food sold in the U.S. contains genetically modified ingredients, mainly corn and soybeans.
Canada, America, Brazil and Argentina grow more than 90 percent of the world's genetically modified crops. Monsanto, the main company fighting Prop. 37, owns 80 percent of the genetically modified seeds planted.
Genetically modified foods have not created any major problems for people who consume them, but advocates for Prop. 37 say people still should be able to easily avoid these foods if they choose to.
The problem is the measure involves more than just the "right to know" -- the three key words -- about when a raw food such as tomato is "Genetically Engineered" or a processed food such as tomato soup either is or maybe "Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering." Many in the food industry, including some who support the intent of Prop. 37, have expressed reservations about some of its flawed details.
"Many people think the basic notions underlying Prop. 37 are good, but that there are many flaws in the way it’s written," said Erin Bennett, an attorney at HansonBridgett in San Francisco with expertise in food labeling. "Is it better to have flawed protection rather than nothing?"
Two weeks before Election Day support for the measure had dropped 17 percent in a month, to 44 percent, as negative ads flooded television, according to a USC Dornsife/L.A. Times poll. Thirteen percent of voters polled were undecided.
"The Whole Foods vote isn't entirely on its side," said Dave Kanevsky, a research director for the polls. "That natural-food coalition, college-educated women and high-income voters, isn't there."
SEE ALSO: Who's Funding Prop. 37?
If passed by a majority of voters on Nov. 6, Prop. 37 would ban not only genetically modified foods from being labeled as natural, but also any processed foods. Experts in food labeling laws have said this could apply to even fresh and organic substances. Bennett's examples included smoked salmon, fermented cheese, dried fruit, freshly milled flour and frozen strawberries.
"That’s a little bit confusing to me how that’s exactly helping consumers," she said.
Bennett also pegged an exception from the labeling requirements for meat as not very helpful for consumers.
The labeling requirements would not start to kick in until 2014 and would not go into full effect until 2019, at which point any food with even a trace of genetically modified ingredients would be subject to labeling. The zero tolerance would be far stricter than regulations elsewhere in the world, the No campaign has pressed.
The European Union started to slow the sale of genetically modified products in the late 1990s.
While natural-food advocates successfully pushed for federal regulations regarding labeling of organic foods, the path for affirmatively labeling "GE-free" foods has taken a turn toward calling out foods that aren't "GE-free."
So now the other major concern ahead of Election Day is that Prop. 37 would spur a litany of litigation against small businesses because they would have to show proof that something on their store shelves not labeled as genetically modified does not, in fact, contain genetically modified ingredients.
Bennett offered the example of a vendor that sells raw sauerkraut at Whole Foods and at farmer's markets.
"Those sorts of producers with good revenue streams" could face lawsuits to show that their products aren't being processed in anyway, Bennett said.
Supporters of Prop. 37 argue that the wording of the clause is not that broad.
"It would only punish someone's who's trying to dupe the public," said Arran Stephens, chief executive of Nature's Path, the nation's top organic breakfast seller.
Attorneys who stand to benefit from Prop. 37 lawsuits have already started filing lawsuits challenging genetically modified products for falsely representing them as 100 percent natural. One of those attorneys will appear on an online radio show Saturday morning.
Stephens said Prop. 37 was not being pushed by his company and other true natural food companies for self-serving reasons.
"It's going to increase competition for us because everyone will be producing non-GMO food then," Stephens said. Of course, it's likely the organic products would also be priced more similarly if companies with genetically engineered ingredients switched to natural ones.
Stephens and his allies have successfully debunked the argument from Monsanto and the other GMO-producers that the labeling requirement would lead to higher costs for customers.
"Manufacturers change their labels every 12-18 months," Stephens said. "That's a normal cost they would bear anyway."
When a bill about labeling genetically engineered fish failed in committee in January, the Democratic lawmaker who sponsored the bill said, "If we had put this bill before the people of California, it would have passed overwhelmingly."
Now that intent is essentially before Californians. Though its aired a $1 million worth of radio ad, the Yes side began airing its first TV advertisements Friday. About $3.5 million will keep those advertisements on TV until the polls close. Stephens said internal polling of 450 Californians shows their was a significant jump in support for Prop. 37 after they saw the ad.
"Pesticide companies like Monsanto and Dow shouldn't be able to hide that they are genetically engineering our food," the ad says. "61 other countries already have the right to know. Shouldn't we? Simple. Clear. Doesn't Cost a Dime. Yes on 37. The right to know what's in our food."
But it's not quite simple and clear to all the industry insiders. Polling experts say there's still time for the Yes side to pull out a comeback.
"Most of the time health will trump, and I will posture that dynamic is holding the yes side close at this point," said Drew Lieberman, the other USC/L.A. Times pollster. "It's an uphill climb, but it's still close."