Endorsement: Prop. 37 is a sour plan for food labeling

September 16, 2012
Sacramento Bee

Consumers want more information, not less. 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 California-only labels on some food that is genetically modified or contains genetically altered ingredients.

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We don’t oppose labeling of genetically modified food. But as we’ve stated before, the federal government, or the food industry, should develop standards, not individual states.

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.

Under Proposition 37, no food that uses genetically engineered ingredients could be called natural. That might make certain 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. The cost of the additional duty would be relatively small. Still, the initiative provides no funding to cover the additional work.

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. However, the food industry should take Proposition 37 as a warning. Consumers want to know what’s in their food. The industry ignores that demand at its peril.

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