Industry News

As California Voters Debate Need for GMO Labeling, the Nation Is Watching

After Connecticut and Vermont lawmakers defeated a measure requiring labeling of genetically engineered foods, a movement in California earned enough support to place a proposition on the November ballot. "The question now becomes, do the voters have the right to demand information from manufacturers in the absence of a verified scientific risk" about the safety of genetically modified organisms, said Tim Lytton, professor at Albany Law School.

By Ann Meyer

PrintAs California Voters Debate Need for GMO Labeling, the Nation Is Watching
As California Voters Debate Need for GMO Labeling, the Nation Is Watching

While several state legislatures have defeated labeling mandates for foods containing genetically engineered ingredients, a California proposition that would let voters decide in November whether disclosure should be required could change the game.

"A proposition is a different business" than a regulation passed by state or federal lawmakers, said Tim Lytton, professor at Albany Law School in New York. "The question now becomes, do the voters have the right to demand information from manufacturers in the absence of a verified scientific risk" about the safety of genetically modified organisms, he said.

Proponents say it comes down to consumers' right to know what's in the foods they buy. California Right to Know spearheaded a campaign that collected more than 971,000 signatures in favor of placing a proposition on the ballot that would require foods with genetically engineered ingredients to carry labels stating, "partially produced with genetic engineering."

Opponents Point to Higher Costs
Opponents, such as the Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition, are fighting the proposition by encouraging voters to consider a series of what if's. For example, consider how costs could increase and small businesses could be hurt if the mandate encouraged frivolous lawsuits against companies making food products that didn't carry a GMO label but were sued nonetheless, said Kathy Fairbanks, spokeswoman for the coalition, which has received funding from the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Council for Biotechnology Information.

And consider what could happen to the cost of food if GMO labels scare off anxious consumers, resulting in increased demand for organic ingredients, which tend to cost more to produce than their genetically engineered counterparts, Fairbanks said.

Proponents Might Buy GMO Foods
But not everyone who supports GMO labeling would necessarily choose to stop buying products containing genetically engineered ingredients, said Mark Mellman, president of the Mellman Group, which conducted a survey for Just Label It that indicates 91 percent of registered voters polled favor labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients. "Not everyone who wants a label wants a label to not buy the product, but they want to know because they feel they have a right to know," he said.

When voters in California decide how important transparency is, the nation will be watching. "It's a legitimate question for voters," Lytton said. "From the industry's point of view, it doesn't make sense to warn people about things that may not warrant a risk. On the other hand, consumers when they vote to get information about a certain product probably ought to be entitled to a certain amount of transparency."

Calculating the Red Tape
But voters might not understand the costs that come with transparency, Fairbanks said. If the proposition in California is successful, food companies might be compelled to prepare two sets of product packaging, one for California specifying GMO ingredients and another for other states that don't have labeling requirements, she said. They also would have to keep new records.

Given that an estimated 60 percent to 80 percent of the processed foods currently in U.S. grocery stores contain genetically engineered ingredients, the number of products requiring label changes would be significant, Fairbanks said.

The labeling requirement is simply unnecessary because foods with genetically modified organisms are considered safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Fairbanks said.

It's Complicated
"In general, this measure is much more complicated and deceptive than proponents claim," she said. "Once voters realize it was written by trial lawyers, it puts the ag industry at a competitive disadvantage, and these foods are safe in the first place, [then] what is the need for this label?"

The American Medical Association recently formally opposed mandated GMO labeling, but the association also called for premarket assessments of products made with GMO ingredients as a preventive measure, suggesting that it believes the safety of GMO products merits ongoing evaluation.

Consumers apparently agree, as a minority of registered voters polled -- about one in four -- said genetically engineered foods were "basically safe," according to Mellman's survey, which was conducted in February.

Despite the early support for placing the California proposition on the ballot, it might not pass, Mellman said. Voters in Oregon defeated a similar proposition 10 years ago. Without a mandate, most experts don't expect food manufacturers to voluntarily disclose their use of genetically engineered ingredients. "If it doesn't pass, then I don't think it provides any incentive for manufacturers" to add labels, Lytton said.

But other avenues of encouraging disclosure could be effective, Lytton said. Retailers could exert pressure on the supply chain. "All of these retailers are calling the shots. They can tell manufacturers what they want. That's an important shift in the market," said Lytton, author of "Can You Believe It's Kosher," scheduled to be published by Harvard Press in 2013.
Market demand shouldn't be underestimated as a potential force for change, he said, noting that the movement resulting in Kosher labeling by private certification agencies took decades and was accomplished without legislation.