Mercury News editorial: Prop 37 has best of intent, bad drafting

October 7, 2012
San Jose Mercury News

Proposition 37 should never have been placed on the ballot this fall. The sponsors who want California to be the first state in the nation to require labeling of food with genetically engineered ingredients skipped one of the most basic steps in lawmaking: They didn’t even try going through the Legislature. If they had, the give and take would have resulted in a better drafted law that we might well have supported.

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The food processors and others spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat Prop. 37 are the same ones that opposed basic nutrition labels that now allow us to tell if a “natural” soup has more fat than a Bavarian cream doughnut. Transparency in labeling is important to consumers, and it’s not as hard as producers make it out to be, even for genetically modified ingredients.

But there are real problems with this particular law. For instance, the state’s independent Legislative Analyst’s Office has concluded that the courts might apply the rules to some processed foods “regardless of whether they are genetically engineered.” A badly drafted law with good intentions is still a bad law. Voters should reject Prop. 37 and hope — or work — for a better labeling law.

Even if Prop. 37 does fail, its popularity in polls so far shows there’s a market in California for foods that are free of genetically engineered products. There’s nothing stopping producers from posting their own “No GE” labels.

The National Academy of  Sciences, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, World Health Organization and the American Medical Association all say there is no proven health risk from foods or animals whose DNA has been modified. Farmers have been breeding traits into animals and foods for generations. In fact, increased productivity can broaden access to good nutrition and help end hunger.

But there are questions about indirect effects, such as whether developing pesticide-resistant plants is increasing the use of poisons in the environment. And critics say it’s impossible to know if there are long-term effects of eating some genetically engineered foods because they haven’t been around long enough to tell.

This is why every European Union nation as well as China, Russia, New Zealand, Japan and Australia requires labels on genetically engineered foods. Probably as a result, only about 5 percent of products on European grocery stores are genetically engineered. By contrast, at least 40 percent of U.S. produce comes from genetically engineered seeds; 94 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of corn grown here is genetically engineered. If Prop. 37 passes, entire grocery aisles will be filled with products bearing a GE label.

The proposition’s biggest problem is its attempt to define “natural” foods and the exemptions it creates. Pet foods containing meat might require labels, but meats for human consumption would not. Cheese, alcohol and all restaurant foods are exempt. But foods that are milled or pressed, such as olive oil, might be prevented from carrying a “natural foods” label.

These irksome problems would have been avoided if proposals had gone through the legislative sausage-making process first. Vote no on Prop 37 and send its backers back to the drawing board.

Read the full article here.