Proposition 37: NEUTRAL

Mandatory Labeling Of Genetically Engineered Retail Food Products

If enacted, Proposition 37 would require labeling of any raw or processed food offered for retail sale in California that has been made from plants or animals with genetic material which has been changed in certain specified ways. It would also prevent such food from being labeled or advertised as “natural.” The proposition, which would become effective on July 1, 2014, exempts food sold in restaurants, or food that uses meat from animals that eat genetically engineered food.

Bend the Arc actively and consistently supports actions that call attention to how our food is raised, grown and processed, with a particular focus on access to healthy, fresh food for low income communities and humane and just treatment of agricultural and retail food workers. That said, Proposition 37 presents a more specific issue on which we have not previously taken a position. We believe, however, that measures such as this would benefit immensely from the kind of give-and-take that is the hallmark of deliberations undertaken through the legislative process.

While we certainly have no principled objection to measures that provide consumers with more information about the food they consume, we are concerned that this initiative would not ultimately help identify which foods are truly safe or healthy. It may even affect access to and costs of food due to its vague definition of genetic engineering and the incentive for litigation (of particular concern for small-scale farmers).

An analogous proposition may shed some light on the potential unintended consequences of Proposition 37. In 1986, Californians passed Proposition 65, with the goal of eliminating exposure to toxic substances that could cause cancer and birth defects by requiring warnings in advance of those exposures. However, because of the vast number of such chemicals present in our environment, Proposition 65 warning signs have proliferated to such an extent that they have become meaningless. They regularly appear outside supermarkets, gasoline stations and even office buildings. A similar phenomenon may occur with respect to the potentially vast array of foods that may be labeled “genetically engineered” within the broad language of this initiative. 

Proposition 37’s opponents note that genetically engineered crops have been declared safe by federal food safety regulators. They argue that Proposition 37 is an unnecessary labeling law that would besmirch popular and reputable food products and raise food prices. They also express concern that a California labeling requirement could spur similar efforts in other states, creating an unwieldy patchwork of state-by-state food-safety laws. The $25 million opposition campaign is funded by large industrial agriculture and food production companies, including Monsanto Co., PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestle USA, Kellogg Co., DuPont and various biotech firms (the most money raised on either side of any measure on this November’s ballot).

On the other hand, Proposition 37’s supporters counter that labeling laws similar to the one they propose for California are currently in effect, and with no adverse impact, in about 50 countries in Europe, South America and Asia. They argue that shoppers have the right to know whether their food has been genetically engineered. The proponents also assert that labeling of specific food items allows those customers who are concerned that genetically engineered products may carry unforeseen health or ecological effects to simply avoid purchasing them. They also suggest that if California enacts Proposition 37, its labeling requirements may become the de facto norm for the nation (because of our state’s size and market influence) and might even prompt the federal government to develop similar or better labeling standards that would apply nationally. 

Finally, Proposition 37 may encourage litigation by allowing anyone to file suit against farmers and food producers for violating this labeling law—whether or not the plaintiff has been directly affected by any mislabeling. Because we support the overall concept of more detailed food labeling, but remain troubled by certain aspects of this initiative, Bend the Arc takes a NEUTRAL position on Proposition 37.

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