California Debates Labeling Requirements for Genetically Engineered Foods

Photo Credit: Shaun Best — Reuters NewMedia, Inc./Corbis

By Jessica Belle

While most of the country is focused on the presidential election, another electoral battle wages in California over genetically engineered foods. This November, Californians will vote on whether to enact “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” or “Proposition 37.” If the proposition passed, California would become the first state in America to regulate the labeling of genetically engineering foods. Recent efforts to petition the Food and Drug Administration to implement regulations similar to Proposition 37 have not been successful, and thus the issue may have to be resolved, if at all, at the state level instead of the federal level.

Under the Act, any food available for retail sale in California after July 1, 2014, will be considered misbranded “if it is or may have been entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering and that fact is not disclosed.” The proposition broadly defines “genetically engineered” as “any food that is produced from an organism or organisms in which the genetic material has been changed.”

Implicated raw agricultural products must be labeled “Genetically Engineered,” while applicable processed foods’ labels must contain the phrase “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.” The labels must be placed on the front of the food’s packaging—or on the label appearing on the retail shelf for unpacked raw foods—in a clear and conspicuous manner. If a food is considered “genetically engineered” or “partially genetically engineered” within the meaning of the statute, it would also be misbranding to include on the food’s label or in advertisements within California the phrases: “ ‘natural,’ ‘naturally made,’ ‘naturally grown,’ ‘all natural’ or any words of similar import that would have any tendency to mislead any consumer.”

The proposition contains enumerated exceptions for labeling of genetically engineered food, including food entirely derived from an animal that was not genetically engineered even if it was feed genetically engineered foods; foods containing “genetically engineered processing aids or enzymes;” alcoholic beverages; and food not packaged for retail sale, but rather intended for immediate consumption, i.e. food at a restaurant.

Both the State and private citizens could seek a temporary or permanent injunction to restrain a person from violating the proposition. The proposed bill relaxes the standing requirements for citizens to bring suit and allows for attorneys’ fees if the citizen prevails in his or her suit.

Supporters of Proposition 37—primarily the organic food industry and consumer groups—argue that genetically engineered foods may have unanticipated, adverse impacts on the environment and people’s health. However, the American Medical Association concluded in December 2009 that “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods.”

Opponents of Proposition 37 contend that not only is there no scientific or medical basis to justify the bill, it will increase the costs of foods in the grocery store—due to the new labeling requirements imposed. Proposition 37 also arbitrarily requires retail food to be clearly labeled, but not spirits, milk or cheese products from non-genetically engineered animals and any food consumed in restaurants. Not surprisingly, the primary parties financing the battle against Proposition 37 are unsurprisingly larger food and biotechnology corporations. The increased labeling costs and potential loss of consumers who fear buying foods labeled genetically engineered foods would pose a grave challenge to the booming biotechnology industry. This industry has utilized advances in biotechnology to increase crop, dairy and meat production while reducing costs.

Despite the strong arguments against Proposition 37, a recent USC Dornsife/L.A. Times poll demonstrated that Californians support the proposition at a rate of two to one. We will have to wait until November for the resolution of this battle over genetically engineered foods in California, which may have national implications if other states start following suit.

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