Editorial, No on 37: Label this one over-regulation

October 1, 2012
Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Californians deserve clear information about the products they buy. They also deserve clear information about the items being sold on the Nov. 6 ballot.

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In the interest of both, we encourage voters to reject Proposition 37, which would create a complex and potentially costly system of labeling for genetically engineered foods. In short, the state doesn’t need it, families can’t afford it, and the science simply doesn’t warrant it.

We support the idea of giving consumers better information about products, particularly food. But this proposition is not designed to help people understand the development of genetically engineered foods and their role and benefits in contemporary society. It’s intent seems to be to scare people, pure and simple, in hopes that if GE foods are separated from other products, consumers will steer clear, and food producers and grocers will be encouraged, if not forced, to purge them from their shelves. This would be a major setback for a branch of science that has generated more controversy than is warranted.

Proposition 37 sounds appealing. It requires labels on all raw or processed foods for sale that are genetically engineered or contain GE products. It also prohibits the labeling of such foods — as well as possibly any processed foods — as “natural.” Proponents note that such labeling has already been required in most European countries for some time.

The problem is that the standards imposed by Proposition 37 would not only make California the first state to have such regulations, they far exceed anything being required by other countries. It also opens the door to potential “shakedown” lawsuits. For example, it allows an individual to sue a food producer, distributor or grocer for the suspicion of noncompliance without having to demonstrate how he or she has been harmed. It operates on the presumption that GE foods are damaging — this despite many studies that indicate GE foods are safe and are not a health risk. As the American Medical Association has declared, “There is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods.”

Opponents contend that if Proposition 37 passes, it will drive up annual food costs for California families by some $400 a year. This presumes higher costs for manufacturers and shippers as they’re forced to separate GE and non-GE foods. Given that up to 70 percent of all grocery products already contain GE ingredients, we suspect producers may go the other route and label everything as having the “potential” of GE foods. The danger here is that GE “warning” labels eventually will become so ubiquitous as to be meaningless. It will become like Proposition 65, California’s toxic labeling law, passed in 1986, where the only people it really benefits are lawyers and litigants.

Given Sonoma County’s deep agricultural roots as well its history as the home of Luther Burbank, the pioneer of agricultural science, voters understand the complexities of this issue better than most. They also are more likely to recognize that these complexities are not something that can easily be addressed with something as blunt as a state ballot initiative.

Proposition 37, as written, creates more problems than solutions. We encourage a no vote.

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