Editorial, ELECTION: No on 37

October 1, 2012
Riverside Press Enterprise

Capricious rules and endless litigation are not consumer protection. Prop. 37 counts on a superficially appealing premise to distract voters from the practical quagmire beneath it. Californians should see this poorly conceived mess for what it is, and reject Prop. 37.

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Prop. 37 on the November ballot would impose new labeling requirements on some food made from genetically engineered ingredients. Stores would have to mark such food as produced with genetic engineering, either on package labels or on store shelves.

Foods modified through genetic science are no longer a rarity. In 2011, genetically engineered seeds produced 88 percent of all corn and 94 percent of all soybeans in the United States. The state’s legislative analyst estimates that 40 to 70 percent of food products sold in California grocery stores have some genetically engineered ingredients.

Prop. 37’s promise of giving consumers better information about food has a surface appeal — until consumers dig deeper into the details of this measure. Prop. 37 would apply a new mandate in arbitrary and burdensome ways that would undermine whatever good it purports to accomplish.

The measure, for example, would exempt some foods from the labeling requirements for no discernible reason. Meat from animals that had not been genetically modified would not need the new labels, even if those animals ate genetically engineered feed. Restaurants could serve genetically altered food without any restrictions, even if the same products would require the new labels in grocery stores. And the measure would appear to prohibit food from being marked as “all natural” or “naturally grown” simply for being milled, frozen or otherwise processed — even if the food has no genetically engineered ingredients. So much for providing consumers with clarity.

Prop. 37 would also swamp the food industry in new paperwork. Retailers would be responsible for labeling food correctly — and would have to provide documentation that any food not marked as genetically engineered is exempt from the law. Farmers, food processors and others in the industry might also have to keep such records.

And punctilious record-keeping would be necessary, because the measure would allow private citizens to enforce the law by suing over any labels they suspect are incorrect. Plaintiffs could sue regardless of whether the supposed violation caused any harm — a clear invitation to abuse. A raft of nuisance lawsuits over minor food identification errors would hardly improve California’s already tough business climate.

Common sense says Prop. 37’s demanding requirements, along with the threat of opportunistic lawyers, would likely drive up food prices. Yet the measure would provide consumers with neither reliable information nor real protection.

Prop. 37 is the wrong approach to addressing the merits or dangers of genetically engineered food. Whatever its intent, this badly written, logically muddled initiative stands to do more mischief than good. Voters have no need to create incoherent policy at the ballot box, and should vote no on Prop. 37.

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