Prop. 37 changes food labeling
In Sonoma, America’s first, official “Slow City,” Proposition 37 is of particular interest to residents and food purveyors alike. The proposed initiative would change food-labeling laws by requiring companies to identify most genetically engineered products, among other things.
Supporters say it is a necessary measure to protect consumers’ right to know about the food they buy; opponents say it allows loopholes for special interest groups and could lead to an unending string of frivolous lawsuits.
The passage of Proposition 37 would trigger three main changes to California law. First, producers would be required to label most genetically modified organisms (GMO), with exemptions for meat, dairy and alcohol products, and food served in restaurants. Second, the Department of Public Health would be charged with enforcing the labeling laws. Third, individuals, including municipalities or private citizens, would be allowed to sue food producers for violating the law using the state’s Consumer Legal Remedy Act, which allows individuals to sue without proving damages from the alleged violation.
“Anyone can file a lawsuit for any reason without evidence,” said Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. While his organization has not taken a position on Proposition 37, the California State Farm Bureau opposes it and McCorvey said he’s heard concerns from farmers who are afraid the measure will make them vulnerable to lawsuits.
“It’s confusing to a lot of farmers,” McCorvey said. That confusion stems from the measure’s vague definition of “genetically modified,” since many of California’s 350 different crops of have been modified throughout history to better survive pests or inclement weather. He pointed to Luther Burbank’s manipulation of potatoes, which resulted in the creation of popular russet potatoes.
“That’s what saved Ireland after the potato famine,” he said.
Valley resident Yannick Phillips disagrees that passing the proposition would lead to more lawsuits. “Even if you take the initiative and you rip that part out about the lawsuits, it doesn’t matter because you can still sue anyone over almost anything,” she said. “This is just about the right to know for consumers. Farmers want this, mothers want this, parents want this.”
Phillips said the exemptions for certain food groups were necessary since the balloting process only allows groups to tackle one issue at a time. She said this campaign focused on “first generation” genetically engineered foods such as processed grains; and excludes “second generation” genetically modified products such as meat and dairy, where livestock are fed genetically modified products.
“Steak, which comes from a cow is not genetically modified. That animal may eat genetically modified corn, but it isn’t genetically modified just like we’re not genetically modified by eating genetically modified foods,” she said. Phillips added that meats that are directly modified, such as genetically engineered salmon, “would absolutely be required to label the products as such.”
McCorvey said the exemptions were written to protect special interest groups and give the law a better chance at passing without raising the ire of powerful agricultural lobby groups. “The whole exemption thing is bizarre, and people should be outraged,” he said.
Sonoma’s food purveyors seem split on the issue. Sheana Davis is a local cheesemaker and owner of the Epicurean Connection, where she sells a variety of prepared foods. She said she ensures none of her products utilize genetically modified organisms, so the labeling law would not affect her business.
“I think Prop. 37 will make the greater market and large companies be transparent on their ingredients,” she said. “Having supported the non-GMO movement for over a decade, I am truly hoping our state of California is prepared to take a leadership role and label GMO foods, as many states are watching to see the outcome in hopes to follow,” she added.
Tom Jenkins, who owns Sonoma’s Best and is also a part-time consumer plaintiff’s class-action attorney, isn’t so sure. He said more research is needed into the health effects of genetically modified organisms, pointing out that the Center for Food Safety estimates that up to 70 percent of foods sold in America contain genetically engineered ingredients.
He added that, as owner of a small, family business, lawsuits are an additional concern.
“Prop. 37 would implement a zero-tolerance policy for the accidental presence of small portions of genetically modified substances,” he said. “At Sonoma’s Best, we can account for food products that we prepare but are at the mercy of food products that are prepared by vendors. Under this scenario, Sonoma’s Best would be sued and would have to counter claim against the vendor.”
The measure was put on the ballot by voters after more than 970,000 signatures were collected, nearly twice the 504,760 required by the state attorney general. Opponents of the measure have spent nearly five times as much on the campaign as supporters, because of backing from major food corporations such as Monsanto ($7.1 million), E.I. Dupont De Nemours & Co. ($4.9 million) and DOW Agrisciences ($2 million). As of Oct. 14, $35.6 million has been raised by the measure’s opposition compared to $7.7 million collected in support of Proposition 37. Major supporters include the nonprofit Organic Consumers Fund ($1.3 million); Mercola Health Resources ($1.1 million); and Kent Whealy ($1 million), founder of the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange.