Consumers want more information about the food they eat.
Opponents of genetically engineered food are taking advantage of that desire as they promote Proposition 37, an ill-conceived initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot that would require labels on some food that is genetically modified or contains even the slightest amount of genetically altered ingredients.
The initiative is written much tighter than the laws of other countries that already require genetically modified labeling, according to an analysis by the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at the University of California.
"For instance, there would be a change in the selection of corn flakes boxes on the food shelf," the UC study concludes. "The consumers' choice would be either organic corn flakes or corn flakes labeled as possibly containing GM. It is believed that 70 to 80 percent of processed food intentionally contain some corn, canola or soy ingredients, so these products would have to be labeled, reformulated with non-GM substitutes or removed. ... It might get to the point where there are so many products with GM labels that most consumers would just ignore the labels because they would be everywhere."
We don't oppose labeling of genetically modified food and we believe that some producers and processors will start such labeling as a marketing strategy. But the standards should be developed by the Food and Drug Admin- istration, based on good science and with the input of the food industry. The standards should not be set state by state.
Proposition 37 is a classic example of an initiative that shouldn't be on the ballot. It is an overreach, is ambiguous, and would open the way for countless lawsuits against retailers who sell food that might lack the proper labeling.
Its proponents made no effort to push the concept through the Legislature. While such a bill might have failed, at least the Legislature's attorneys and analysts could have refined ambiguous provisions.
For these multiple reasons, newspapers around the state are opposing Proposition 37, even those that supported that most recent ag-related initiative, Proposition 2, which increased the space that egg producers must provide for laying hens.
Under Proposition 37, no food that uses genetically engineered ingredients could be called natural. That might make some sense. But the proposal contains wording that could prohibit "natural" labels on any food that that has been pressed or milled.
That might include grain, which is milled, or olive oil, which is produced by pressing olives. Proponents say that wasn't their intent. But enterprising attorneys almost certainly would sue, leaving it to judges to decide.
The measure would exempt restaurant food, cheese, meat and alcohol from labeling requirements. Oddly, pet food might not be exempt.
The initiative would grant authority over labeling to the California Department of Public Health, which already has plenty of work combating food-borne pathogens. For state government, the cost of the additional duty would be relatively small, but the initiative provides no funding to cover the additional work.
There would be significant costs associated with the initiative, however, and they would fall on agriculture, food processors and ultimately on consumers. Opponents claim the measure would cost the average California family $400 per year in higher food costs.
Under the initiative, private attorneys and plaintiffs would have the power to enforce it by suing retailers they suspect of selling products that are not properly labeled.
The Legislative Analyst's Office noted that the initiative authorizes "consumers to sue without needing to demonstrate that any specific damage occurred as a result of the alleged violation." California does not need another open-ended cause of action.
Backers of the measure have raised about $2.5 million, much of it from alternative health advocates and an organic food promoter from Minnesota. Monsanto Co., which supports labeling in Europe, is the largest single donor to the opposition campaign, which has raised $27 million so far.
Even voters who worry about genetically modified food should reject Proposition 37. This flawed measure would set back the cause of labeling.