Science, Tech & Environment

Californians set to vote on bill requiring labeling of genetically modified foods

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Supporters of California's Proposition 37 are trying to require labeling of almost any food sold in California that contains genetically modified organisms. (Photo by Shira Golding.)

Californians in November will vote on a measure that would require manufacturers to label food containing genetically modified organisms.

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Prop 37, as it's called, has pitted agribusiness giants Monsanto, Nestle and Kellogg against groups like the Organic Consumers Fund, Cliff Bar and Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap. Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center, says proponents of Proposition 37 argue the science underlying genetically engineered food remains uncertain and Californians deserve to know what it is they're eating.

"In the United States the effort to label or disclose genetically engineered food has not gone too far," Frank said. "Internationally it has — many nations already require this. They emphasize that what they are proposing and what the initiative requires is disclosure, rather than a ban on genetically engineered food."

Opponents of the bill say there's no scientific basis for concern, that no scientific studies have demonstrated major health problems associated with genetically engineered food.

They also argue that if regulation is needed, it should be pursued at the national level and, as it is, if the measure is passed it will lead to dramatically higher food prices for Californians, Frank said.

"Most raw foods that you would buy in the vegetable or produce bin at the local market would be covered, as well as the vast majority of processed foods, everything from cereals to bread and that sort of thing," Frank said. "Most food that consumers would find on their grocery shelves."

But not everything is covered. For example, milk and dairy products made from cows that are fed genetically modified food wouldn't have to be labeled as containing such.

"Two other exemptions are for food that is served in restaurants in California and also there's an exemption for alcoholic beverages," Frank said. "Politics is always the art of the possible and it may be that the initiative proponents didn't want to take on too many lobbies and business groups at one time."

While California voters are the only ones headed to the polls, it's almost universally agreed that success in California will lead to labeling requirements expanding across the country, and perhaps even nationally.

"That is one of the objectives of the proponents and it is certainly a major concern, if not fear, of the opponents of Proposition 37," Frank said.

Opponents of the bill have spent some $25 million in an effort to beat back the proposition, while proponents have spent only some 10 percent of that. But still, Frank said he thinks the vote will be close.

"The early polls suggest that Californians were in support of the measure by a three to one margin. I think as a result of the imbalance of campaign funds on either side, I think that gap is going to narrow considerably," Frank said.