A law on the California ballot to require labeling of genetically engineered foods could affect the entire U.S. food market. Proponents say it’s about consumer choice. Critics say it brands such foods as unsafe when they aren’t.
Proposition 37 would make California the first state to require disclosure labels on all foods that contain any genetically engineered ingredients except meat, milk, alcohol or foods sold in restaurants.
Because most processed foods are shipped regionally or nationally, many companies would have to label much of what they make or reformulate their products to take out genetically engineered ingredients, says Colin Carter, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California-Davis who is studying the proposition’s possible effects. “They’ll just have to do it across the board.”
According to industry estimates, 40 to 75 percent of processed foods contain some genetically engineered ingredients, which can make the product cheaper to produce.
Genetically engineered or modified organisms, often called GMOs, are ingredients that have been engineered to add genes with traits such as resistance to herbicides used to kill weeds around them or the ability for a plant to produce its own pesticide. Today 95 percent of U.S. sugar beets, 94 percent of soybeans, 90 percent of cotton and 88 percent of feed corn are genetically modified.
In September, polls showed the ballot initiative winning by a 2-to-1 margin. However, an advertising blitz against the proposition has caused support to wane. A poll by the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Times released Thursday found that 44 percent of registered voters support the initiative and 42 percent oppose it.
The measure simply gives consumers information so they can decide whether they want to give genetically engineered foods to their families, says Stacy Malkan, media director of California Right to Know, which supports the initiative. “Consumer demand should drive what the market provides. That’s just how the free market works.”
Opponents counter that the labels make it seem like genetically modified ingredients are not safe. The proposition is not “simply a labeling measure,” says Kathy Fairbanks, spokeswoman for the No on 37 group. She says that Joseph Mercola, an anti-GMO activist and major funder of the proposition, called such labels “the equivalent of a skull and crossbones” in an opinion piece on the Huffington Post.
Critics say genetically engineered foods are untested and risky. They cite studies, mostly in mice and rats, that have shown possible health dangers such as higher rates of allergies and tumors. However, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Academy of Sciences say there is no indication they are unsafe. In June, the American Medical Association said that “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods.”
The organic food industry, consumer groups, some food-safety groups and retailers such as Whole Foods, a natural-foods chain, support the proposition. It is opposed by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and most of the nation’s largest food and beverage makers, including PepsiCo, Nestlé, Coca-Cola and General Mills.
The California initiative is important to the rest of the country because “whatever happens here tends to become the national norm,” says Michael Pollan, a food writer who supports the proposition. If it passes, he says, it will change the political balance of power by showing Congress and the White House that “there are votes behind the movement to reform the food system.”
“This is a no-brainer,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University. She doesn’t think genetically engineered foods are any different or more dangerous than other foods but says consumers should have the choice. “Even if there is no scientific difference, people want to know,” she says.
Attempts this year to pass mandatory labeling in Vermont and Connecticut failed. A 2002 ballot initiative in Oregon also failed. Alaska requires the labeling of all genetically engineered fish, though none have yet been approved for sale in the United States.
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