One California proposition that is getting nationwide attention is Proposition 37. It requires labeling on raw or processed food that’s made from certain genetically engineered materials. It also prohibits calling any foods “natural” on the packaging — if those foods are made with genetically modified organisms (GMO). Supporters say consumers have a right to this information. Opponents say the measure is misleading and full of loopholes.
The California Report’s Scott Shafer talked with science reporter Amy Standen on Thursday about Prop. 37. Here’s an edited transcript of their discussion:
SCOTT SHAFER: Let’s begin with a background question. How are genetically modified foods used right now; how prevalent are they?
AMY STANDEN: Very prevalent. In fact, pretty much everything you’ll find in the middle of the supermarket — everything from sodas to crackers to cereals to cookies — almost all of those foods contain genetically modified ingredients. That’s because most of the corn, soy and a lot of the rice grown in the U.S. is grown from genetically modified seeds.
SHAFER: And what does that mean? How are they engineered and why?
STANDEN: Most of them have been genetically engineered to make them more resistant to pathogens of one sort or another — or to make them work well with certain kinds of herbicides that are already on the market.
SHAFER: So if Prop. 37 passes, would these labels be required on a lot of what we buy?
STANDEN: A lot of things, and that’s the main argument that you hear from the “No on 37” camp — which is that unless manufacturers start buying from farmers who aren’t using these seeds, they are going to have start labeling pretty much everything that’s out there.
SHAFER: And so what’s the main argument on behalf of Prop. 37? Is it a right-to-know issue?
STANDEN: Yes, that’s the line you hear over and over again. The “Yes on 37” side says GMO labeling is mandatory in Europe. It has been since 2003, and a lot of people in that camp are not convinced that genetically modified food is safe to eat or that there’s been enough research on it. They also say that the FDA doesn’t regulate this technology enough.
SHAFER: There have been a lot of ads on both sides on television. Here’s one “Yes on 37” ad:
Clearly in that advertisement, for “Yes on 37,” there’s a sort of fear of the unknown. Is there a basis for that?
STANDEN: It is very hard to say as a blanket statement whether or not these products are safe or not. Of course it’s worth noting that we Americans have been eating massive amounts of these products for decades. The scientific studies that we’ve seen done on these products tend to be on mice, they’re very short term, they’re very small, there’s been very little there that’s been conclusive. It’s hard to extrapolate human health implications from a mouse study
SHAFER: So one of the “Yes on 37” ads links genetically modified foods to tumors. Is that one of those studies you’re talking about?
STANDEN: That’s one of those studies, and actually that highlights a big problem with this argument in general, which is, it’s very hard to find science that didn’t come from a side of this camp with a vested interest in a certain outcome. In that case, it was a well-known advocate or activist against genetically modified products. I mean, the point that people should keep in mind here is that genetic engineering isn’t an ingredient. It’s not like saturated fat or MSG. It’s a technology.
SHAFER: Well, if you look at the campaign financing for this ballot measure, opponents of Prop. 37 have vastly outraised proponents like nine-to-one, and some very well-known food companies like Kraft and Heinz have given big bucks, along with biotech and chemical companies like Dow, Monsanto and DuPont. So what’s at stake for them?
STANDEN: Their fear is that this is going to create a bias in the marketplace, and that they’ll be scrambling for new suppliers, and it’ll disrupt the market.
SHAFER: Of course what happens here in California could go east.
STANDEN: California is such a big market, but it’s just not worth it for manufacturers to produce two lines of products. So, very likely if you see the labeling here and Prop. 37 passes, this will become a national standard.
SHAFER: There have been several ads for No on 37, such as this one:
SHAFER: One other part of this that opponents are complaining about is that it would allow consumers to sue companies that don’t fully comply with these regulations, which of course would be a boon for lawyers.
STANDEN: Yes, and that’s a common complaint because under Proposition 37, plaintiffs don’t have to prove damages, and that makes a lot of sense if you think about it. I mean, really how would you prove that you have been damaged by a box of unlabeled GMO Triscuits, right? On the other hand, the opponents of this proposition really fear that we would see these lawsuits clogging up the courts, and you would see small grocery store owners spending a lot of time and money defending themselves.
Listen to Scott Shafer’s interview with Amy Standen