There has been much talk in the past few months of the upcoming election. And while most talk has centered around who should win our vote for president, there is a growing discussion in my home state of California surrounding a number of proposed measures. Of these, Proposition 37 is one of the more widely debated ballot measures.
At the core of it, the measure appears to seek approval of the people of California to enact a law that will require “labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways” and will also prohibit “labeling or advertising such food, or other processed food, as ‘natural’”. On the surface, this seems like an absolutely wonderful ballot measure, as it will mean that the people of California will finally be able to know which foods they are considering buying or eating that might be genetically modified (GMO) or genetically engineered (GE) while at the same time putting the onus of labeling these foods on the manufacturers and producers of these foods. But as I read the text of the measure, it has become clear to me that the responsibility for labeling seems to lay much closer to the consumer while putting no real accountability at the source of large food manufacturing and the most prominent sources of food distribution.
Prop 37 will put the bulk of the responsibility of the labeling of foods on the retailer of those foods:
Retailers (such as grocery stores) would be primarily responsible for complying with the measure by ensuring that their food products are correctly labeled. Products that are labeled as GE would be in compliance. For each product that is not labeled as GE, a retailer generally must be able to document why that product is exempt from labeling.
Other entities throughout the food supply chain (such as farmers and food manufacturers) may also be responsible for maintaining these records.
Prop 37 will likewise open the door to unsubstantiated lawsuits surrounding the labeling of foods such that someone can in fact bring a suit against the retailer that sells the product in addition to the wholesaler that moves it regardless of whether there was any damage done because of the labeling violation:
Litigation to Enforce the Measure. Violations of the measure could be prosecuted by state, local, or private parties. It allows the court to award these parties all reasonable costs incurred in investigating and prosecuting the action. In addition, the measure specifies that consumers could sue for violations of the measure’s requirements under the state Consumer Legal Remedies Act, which allows consumers to sue without needing to demonstrate that any specific damage occurred as a result of the alleged violation.
Additionally, there are several glaring exemptions allowed in this measure that are troublesome, if not down right confounding:
The measure also excludes certain food products from the above labeling requirements. For example, alcoholic beverages, organic foods, and restaurant food and other prepared foods intended to be eaten immediately would not have to be labeled. Animal products— such as beef or chicken—that were not directly produced through genetic engineering would also be exempted, regardless of whether the animal had been fed GE crops.
This means that beer, wine, spirits and other alcohol drinks will not have to abide by this law. Likewise, restaurants that sell GMO/GE food – restaurants like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Outback Steakhouse, Chili’s, etc – can still sell GMO/GE food without you ever knowing about it. Additionally, and this is a big one in my opinion, animal products – chicken, beef, pork, eggs, milk, etc – that are not directly GMO/GE but that were fed GMO/GE feed will not have to be labeled as GMO/GE.
I’m of the opinion that, in the end, if this measure passes, all that will end up happening is grocers will up their prices to offset the cost of verifying proper labeling, small producers and farmers will suffer tremendous cost increases in production to either comply with the law or find ways to exploit loopholes and larger producers will have already discovered ways of circumventing this law by way of the many loopholes and exemptions in it. Meanwhile, large prepared food providers will continue to sell GMO/GE food for immediate consumption, the Monsantos of the world will continue to rake in huge profits from their GE foods and food products and will assist the larger food producers in bucking the system while the small farmer is left trying to figure out how they will stay in business.
As bad as I want proper labeling of foods, I just don’t think Prop 37 is the right path to it. It leaves entirely too many ways for the bad guys to win at the expense of the good guys while burdening the grocers that we frequent and not really providing much coverage for the end consumer. It might sound controversial, but there is just no way I can vote for this measure as it is worded. If the exemptions weren’t in place, I’d vote a big fat YES for it. But until that happens, my vote is in favor of keeping the playing field level for small food producers, local farmers and grocers.
Prop 37: Read the Text | Propositions | Elections 2012 | KCET
California Proposition 37, Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food (2012) – Ballotpedia
California Secretary of State, Prop 37 (PDF)