by Amy Standen, Jon Brooks, Lisa Aliferis
KQED Public Radio’s Forum program ran a debate last week on Proposition 37, which requires the labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients. It was a spirited discussion, and we thought one exchange, in particular, deserved a bit more digging.
GMO soybeans. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
It began with Bob Goldberg, UCLA professor and author of one of the ballot arguments opposed to Prop. 37, calling it a “Trojan horse.”
“Prop. 37 is not a simple labeling proposition. It’s a Trojan Horse, and the reason it’s a Trojan Horse is it has a threshold requirement that the grocery stores are not going to be able to have anything that has more than .5 percent genetically engineered ingredients or derivatives from genetically engineered crops. That threshold goes to zero percent in a few years.”
After looking over Prop 37 in the KQED Proposition Guide, we weren’t so sure that was accurate and decided to investigate.
Let’s break the issue down into two parts.
1) Would Prop. 37 keep foods with GM ingredients out of stores?
Over the weekend, the Sacramento Bee’s “Ad Watch” dinged the No-on-37 camp for saying that Prop 37 “would ban thousands of common food products in California unless they are specially relabeled to meet complex new requirements and restrictions that would only exist in our state.”
The Bee says, “but those foods could still be sold – without the labels – if the manufacturers go organic or use ingredients that are not genetically engineered.”
Yes on 37, naturally, agrees. “Prop 37 is a label, not a ban,” says Stacy Malkan. Grocery stores can sell anything they want with genetically engineered ingredients, it would just have to be labeled.”
So, in short: Prop 37 doesn’t ban products with GE ingredients; it requires labels on them.
2) What about this “.5 % threshold?” How would it affect processed food makers like General Mills, who buy raw ingredients from farmers across the country?
The section of the proposition relating to the threshold is actually a temporary exemption to the labeling requirement. It reads:
The requirements of Section 110809 [the labeling requirement] shall not apply to any of the following…
Until July 1, 2019, any processed food that would be subject to Section 110809 solely because it includes one or more genetically engineered ingredients, provided that: (1) no single such ingredient accounts for more than one-half of one percent of the total weight of such processed food…
So the claim that “grocery stores are not going to be able to have anything that has more than .5 percent genetically engineered ingredients or derivatives from genetically engineered crops” is not something that is stipulated in the text of the initiative.
“The Prop includes a percentage (.5%) until 2019 to give companies time to find alternatives (if they so choose) for GE micro-ingredients that don’t have easy substitutes. But after 2019, they have to label if they are intentionally using GE ingredients,” says Malkan.
We’ve left Bob Goldberg, the Prop 37 opponent, phone and email messages inviting him to respond, and we’ll update this post if and when we hear back from him.
(Update 2:35 p.m.) Kathy Fairbanks, spokesperson for No on Prop 37, says that Bob Goldberg “misspoke” in saying that under the initiative “grocery stores are not going to be able to have anything that has more than .5 percent genetically engineered ingredients or derivatives from genetically engineered crops.”
She amended the statement by saying, “It’s a ban unless the products are repackaged, relabeled, or remade with non-GE ingredients.” (Emphasis ours).
(Update Oct 8) Bob Goldberg has gotten back to us and replies with the following:
You are correct, Prop 37 requires a label. It’s not a ban. However, it’s “guilt by association.” The label implies that foods containing an ingredient derived from a genetically engineered crop MIGHT be a cause for concern. In fact, foods derived from genetically engineered crops are the most thoroughly tested in the 10,000 years of agriculture, and have been been shown to be completely safe for human and animal consumption.