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Is It A Good Idea To Label Genetically Modified Foods?

A new bill in California would force food producers to disclose if any genetically engineered ingredients were in what you eat. Is the law common sense or simply trying to hold back the future of food?

In 1983, scientists created the first genetically modified plant. Fast forward a mere 29 years later and approximately 80% of all packaged food in the U.S. contains genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. But there’s no way for you to tell—producers aren’t required to use any labeling that indicates the use of GE crops.

That may soon change in California, where Proposition 37 (AKA the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act) will be placed on voter ballots in the upcoming November election. If passed, the proposition will require most foods containing GE ingredients (with the exception of alcoholic beverages, dairy, meat, and poultry) to come with special labeling.

This attempt at transparency has riled up pesticide and biotechnology industries, which have—along with other groups that oppose the law—created a website entitled Stop the Costly Food Labeling Proposition to convince voters that it’s a bad idea to have products containing GE crops labeled as such. We decided to delve into some of their claims.

The law would hurt California family farmers, food companies and grocers.

The site claims that the law will require these groups to keep records on every product they sell, tracking whether they contain GE ingredients and force them to place "scary-sounding labels" on their products, putting them at a competitive disadvantage. They would also have to spend cash to ensure that that they keep entirely separate facilities for GE and non-GE crops.

That’s not really the problem, says Paul Towers, the Organizing & Media Director of Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA). " he number of GE crops grown in California are relatively minimal. The greater issue at stake is the proximity of GE crops to specialty crops in the state."

Towers says that almonds—a multibillion dollar a year industry in the state—are at risk of pesticide contamination from cotton and corn, the two main herbicide-tolerant crops on the market. "We’re putting that industry and those farmers at greater risk of harm," he says.

The legislation would increase food prices for Californians because of the complexity of complying with the proposition.

"The initiative really just requires adding a little bit of extra ink to existing labels," says Towers. And in any case, he says, companies have 18 months to comply if the initiative is passed.

On the flip side, says Kathy Fairbanks of Bicker, Castillo & Fairbanks (the firm that represents the campaign against Prop. 37), this proposition will affect costs on every step of the supply chain. "I’ve heard the proponents say many times that this is a simple measure, that it’s basically putting a simple label on your box of granola bars, but it’s not," she says. "If they decide to add labels, that carries a cost, and if they decide they need to change out ingredients, that’s a massive, massive cost."

The law makes no sense since it exempts certain foods (when they are sold "for immediate consumption" in restaurants, as well as dairy, meat, poultry, and alcohol).

It’s difficult to regulate and monitor animals that are eating GE crops, according to PANNA. "Some of the exemptions that exist are meant to create efficiency in terms of adoption," says Towers. "This is meant to be the most efficient means of adopting GMO labeling."

Fairbanks says that’s a bogus argument. "If [the proposition] is going to require food companies to buy organic corn or conventional [non-GE] corn to put in their products, ranchers could just as easily buy organic corn or conventional corn."

The law would create a new category of lawsuits, letting anyone sue food companies, grocer and farmer who they believe have violated the labeling rules, even without proof of damages.

According to Fairbanks, the "bounty hunter" lawsuits allowed under the law don’t require that attorneys show proof of violation or damage resulting from someone eating GMO products. She explains: "They will look for products that don’t have a label but that contain corn or soy that could be made with GE ingredient and they’ll allege that this is mislabeled because this could contain GE and you didn’t label it"—even if the products don’t, in fact,contain GE ingredients.

The pro-Prop.27 website contends: "Whipping up fears about trial lawyers is a key strategy of the opposition. Their website claims the initiative will authorize 'bounty hunter lawsuits.' This claim is false and makes no sense. The California Right to Know initiative does not allow bounty hunter fees, so there is no economic incentive for lawyers to sue."

The law is extreme, since most packaged food and beverage products contain GE ingredients. No similar law exists in any other state.

The safety of GE food products is still up in the air (see our recent piece on genetic engineers explaining the dangers of GE food) and this anonymous letter from 26 scientists to the EPA complaining about our lack of knowledge on the subject. There are arguments to be made for both sides.

It is true that no similar law exists in any other state. That’s not for lack of trying. "If you look at Vermont and Connecticut, they were set to pass laws doing similar things. Both states pulled back because of fear of legal reprisal and legal bills [from the biotech industry]," explains Towers. "California is one of the few places where this has been taken directly to voters."

Other countries have GE labeling requirements, but only require labeling for products that contain small percentages of GE ingredients ( .9% to 5%). California will have an extreme threshold of .5% in 2014 and 0.0% detectable levels in 2019.

Even the organic industry doesn’t have rules this strict: "To be certified organic does not require having a zero tolerance for GE ingredients," says Fairbanks. "The organic industry lobbied to allow a certain percentage of GE ingredients because they realize that the threshold is pretty much impossible to meet."

Still, she says, the law wouldn’t make sense even with a higher threshold because of its other problems. And yet, since so many other countries already have labeling rules, it’s possible that Prop. 37 could actually help California farmers in the export market.

It’s hard to say whether the proposition will pass (though it wouldn’t be surprising if it did). But we do know one thing: the majority of Americans want GMO products labeled. A recent poll from the Mellman Group found that than 9 in 10 voters are in favor of the FDA requiring that "foods which have been genetically engineered or containing genetically engineered ingredients be labeled to indicate that." And a recent Zogby International Poll found that 87% of respondents were in favor of labeling. That may be a hint of what’s to come.