California voters will have the opportunity next month to vote to require some, but not all, food sold in the state and produced with genetic engineering be labeled as such. (There are exemptions for milk, restaurant food and other products.)
California’s Proposition 37 has received much national attention due to expectations that similar laws might proceed elsewhere if it were approved by Golden State voters. The ballot initiative has also garnered significant attention because of the large amount of money spent on advertising by both sides of the issue. In mid-September it was estimated that the two sides had already amassed more than $30 million to sway voters.
Opponents to Prop 37, however, welcomed support from California’s largest daily newspaper this week, The Los Angeles Times. The paper endorsed a “no” vote on the issue yesterday, calling the proposed law “problematic on a number of levels.”
That’s not to say the editors at the LA Times don’t harbor some doubts about genetically engineered foods. Specifically, the paper claims America “rushed headlong into producing (GM food) with lax federal oversight, and although many studies have been conducted over the last couple of decades, a 2009 editorial in Scientific American complained that too much of the research has been controlled by the companies that create the engineered products.”
But the LA Times finds a laundry list of reasons to reject Proposition 37, and calls the proposal “sloppily written.” The paper cites the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office claiming the language in Proposition 37 “could be construed by the courts to imply that processed foods could not be labeled as ‘natural’ even if they weren’t genetically engineered.”
Additionally, the paper noted that “most of the burden for ensuring foods are properly labeled would fall not on producers but on retailers, which would have to get written statements from their suppliers verifying that there were no bioengineered ingredients – a paperwork mandate that could make it hard for mom-and-pop groceries to stay in business. Enforcement would largely occur through lawsuits brought by members of the public who suspect grocers of selling unlabeled food, a messy and potentially expensive way to bring about compliance.”
But the most important reason to reject Prop 37, according to the LA Times, is that there is “no rationale for singling out genetic engineering” as the agricultural practice for which labeling should be required. “So far,” the editor’s wrote, “there is little if any evidence that changing a plant’s or animal’s genes through bioengineering, rather than through selective breeding, is dangerous to the people who consume it. In fact, some foods have been engineered specifically to remove allergens from the original version.”
To make their case that genetically engineered foods should not be the only foods under label requirements, the LA Times wrote: “By contrast, there is obvious reason to be worried about the fact that three-fourths of the antibiotics in this country are used to fatten and prevent disease in livestock, not to treat disease in people. The rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria from overuse of pharmaceuticals poses a real threat to public health. So why label only the bioengineered foods?”
Those claims about antibiotics in food animal production have been widely disputed by producers and veterinarians, but apparently accepted as fact by the editors at the LA Times.
However, the LA Times offers one suggestion on which both producers and consumers can agree: “What’s needed is a consistent, rational food policy.”
Defining “rational,” however, may be a challenge.