California has long shaped agricultural and environmental practices nationwide, and an initiative on Tuesday’s ballot could frame the growing national movement over labeling foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.
Such ingredients come from crops – in particular soybeans and corn – that have had their DNA scientifically altered by genes from other plants, animals, viruses or bacteria. California voters will decide Tuesday whether they want to require food with genetically modified ingredients to be labeled when it’s sold in retail outlets. Such products could not be labeled as "natural" if the initiative passes.
Supporters say success at the ballot box would bring one of the biggest consumer markets and food producers in the country in line with labeling laws in 61 other countries. The issue is far bigger than California, said Stacy Malkan with the California Right to Know campaign, which launched the initiative.
"It’s really the first time we’ve had a national conversation about genetically engineered foods in the United States in a major way," she said. "That in and of itself is a significant achievement."
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Polls show the California initiative, known as Proposition 37, has mixed chances of passage.
If it does pass, California could provide momentum for national labeling efforts, which seek to draw more attention to the safety of genetically modified foods. That includes one campaign, led by a veteran organic producer, to get the Food and Drug Administration to determine the safety of genetically engineered foods before they go to consumers.
"The California effort has served to absolutely elevate awareness about this issue," said Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of the organic yogurt producer Stonyfield Farm and also chairman of the Just Label It campaign, which is pushing for national labeling.
Americans have been genetically engineering foods for nearly two decades, especially in processed foods such as sodas, cereals, salad dressings and baked goods. Many contain corn syrup, soy-based emulsifiers, canola oil or other ingredients derived from biotech crops, which are engineered to fight pests and tolerate herbicides. Most animal feed is derived from genetically modified crops, too.
The only way to avoid foods with genetically modified ingredients is to eat organic foods, which U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines say cannot be genetically modified.
The FDA’s current oversight, which dates to the first Bush administration, is based on the agency’s findings that genetically modified foods are substantially equivalent to conventionally produced foods, and that no labeling is required.
In 1996, the agency developed procedures for developers who intend to bring bioengineered foods to the market. Developers must meet with the agency to identify and discuss safety, nutritional or other regulatory issues regarding bioengineered food. The Environmental Protection Agency conducts similar reviews for foods that have been genetically modified to withstand herbicides.
Food producers well outside California have begun to take notice. At Teaism, a chain of four Washington, D.C.-based Asian-themed restaurants, the owners decided to stop offering most products made from soy because an estimated 96 percent of the U.S. soybean crop is derived from genetically modified sources. (Most goes to animal feed; tofu and other specialty soy products for humans usually come from conventional crops.)
Organic soy sauce is double the cost of conventional soy sauce, said Michelle Brown, Teaism’s co-owner. That’s a big expense for a restaurant group that keeps its prices at about $10 an entree and serves upward of 15 gallons of soy sauce a week. But the owners have decided they can make the most impact on eating habits by changing their own menu, Brown said.
"The government is not going to protect us, and there’s no reason to wait for the government to protect us," she said. "As an individual consumer, I vote with my pocketbook. And my business is voting 100 percent no (genetically modified) soy and no corn."
A campaign opposed to the California labeling initiative has been boosted by $45 million raised from biotech companies, grocery manufacturers and the soft drink industry. Top contributors to the anti-labeling campaign, called No on 37, include biotech giants Monsanto, Dow, Bayer CropScience, Syngenta and BASF. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kraft Foods and Nestle all have donated more than $1 million to oppose the labeling campaign.
The pro-labeling campaign has raised about $7 million. It’s supported by advocacy organizations such as the Environmental Working Group and Public Citizen. Mercola Health Resources, which sells nutritional supplements, and the Organic Consumers Fund, a lobbying group, are major backers. It also has support from organic producers such as Amy’s Kitchen and Dr. Bronner’s Soaps, two of its biggest corporate contributors.
The "no" campaign has focused on the complexities of labeling genetically foods, with a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign that highlights some of the potential costs of labeling. The organization commissioned a study that found grocery bills over the course of a year could rise as much as $400 for a family of four. Those estimated costs are in part from defending lawsuits from improperly labeled foods, said Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for the No on 37 coalition.
They also highlight some of what they describe as inconsistencies in the rules. Dog food, often made from genetically engineered grains, must be labeled. A steak that comes from a cow that ate genetically modified feed does not need to be labeled. Neither does restaurant food, the campaign points out.
"The supporters are positioning Proposition 37 as a measure that will give you information when you’re eating (genetically engineered) ingredients or (genetically engineered) foods," Fairbanks said. "And it doesn’t really do that."
What it does do is give consumers a choice by increasing the transparency of the American food system, said food writer Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” a book that looks at American food choices. Pollan, a Californian, also argues that the fight is about the power of big food producers. Food politics are well on their way to becoming an organized national movement, Pollan said, thanks in part to Proposition 37.
"I think you stand on the ground that more information is better than less information, more study is better than less study, and more labels are better than no labels," he said.
Food activists and consumer groups in support of more disclosure say that no matter the outcome of the initiative, they will press on. This time, in Washington.
"I think that we feel confident that when the focus returns post-election to FDA and D.C., I think we have a great deal more momentum and a larger constituency than we had before," said Hirshberg of the Just Label It campaign. "Sooner or later, all roads lead back to Washington."