A More Important Vote in California

Proposition 37 looks likely to ignite the GMO debate nationally.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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We devote our cover story this month to the November 6 presidential election and the potential impact on the food and beverage industry if Mitt or Barack are elected. Come to think of its, we haven't had candidates with stranger first names since Dwight beat Adlai back in 1956 – for the second time.

Not to diminish our cover story, but there's another vote on November 6 -- Proposition 37 -- that will have much bigger implications for the food industry. California voters will consider a proposal to require the labeling of foods with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). California has a history of cumbersome but consumerist legislation, some of which has spread across the country, some of which has not. While it's not the most typical state by which to take the nation's pulse, this vote certainly will have national ramifications.

If Proposition 37 fails, I think it's a death blow to GMO labeling efforts in other states or at the federal level. But failure seems unlikely. I've seen a number of polls and stories that indicate the labeling requirement will pass, perhaps overwhelmingly. Whether that creates a domino effect across the other 49 states, or even effects something at the federal level, is no sure thing. But the issue of GMOs certainly is being talked about more now than ever before.

In a conspicuously timed news event, a supposedly peer-reviewed French research study linked genetically engineered corn to mammary tumors, kidney and liver damage and other serious illnesses in rats. The findings were published Sept. 19 in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.

Six professors at France's University of Caen and one from University of Verona, Italy, for two years fed rats a steady diet of the most common type of genetically engineered corn in the American diet in combination with the commonly used herbicide Roundup. Russia, not exactly a comrade of ours lately, quickly banned American GMO corn. Just as quickly, scientists from around the world picked apart the study, wondering why this is the first study to find these dangers and questioning why the poor rats were forced to drink water laced with Roundup.

Even if the issue stays in California, it will create a huge headache for many food and beverage processors, because most of you at least sell some products in the country's most populous state (37.7 million according to the most recent estimate). Like a handful of other California laws, this one will require at least special labels for this special state.

Under the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, food labels would need to disclose ingredients that have been entirely or partially produced with genetically modified organisms. Proponents claim consumers have the right to know what they are eating.

This is an issue that divides even our readership. Along with ultra-large food processors, Food Processing has a contingent of natural and organic food companies, who are largely opposed to GMOs.

"There's nothing wrong with transparency in food labeling, but a government-mandated label comes across like a warning, and that is problematic because there are no known health issues or environmental consequences associated with the consumption of genetically modified foods," says David Ter Molen, a food industry team lawyer at Freeborn & Peters LLP, Chicago. He wrote a Power Lunch guest column for us back in August about the Nutella lawsuit which involved "healthy" marketing claims and also was set in the more protective legal climate of California. He also wrote a recent piece on this very topic, Proposition 37: Food Transparency or Increased Organic Food Sales?

Ter Molen says labeling requirements are generally used when there is undisputed scientific evidence that an ingredient has unhealthy effects. In the case of GMOs, he says, "There is a lot of misinformation, as well as unfounded assumptions, being spread across the Internet that feeds the perception that GMOs are inherently bad."

His prescription is for food companies to more proactively communicate with the public about what GMO products really are and what they are not "The food industry's goal on this issue should be to help educate consumers on the nature of GMO ingredients and why they are used. In that manner, food companies can move towards transparency and help quell the fears of some consumers about GMOs along with the broader perception that corporate America is untrustworthy."

Constitutional watchers expect that, if passed, the California law would be immediately challenged in court, including on grounds that it interferes with First Amendment rights. Legal wranglings aside, GMOs are an issue that should be faced head-on by the food industry with either better communication on the safeness of GMOs or more and better studies by truly independent researchers to establish the true nature of those ingredients.

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