GMOs Causing Food Fight in California

Big agri-business is fighting against a provision requiring labels for genetically engineered foods

Environmental protesters demonstrate against the FDA's position on genetically-engineered foods.
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Forget presidential politics. In California, the hot election battle is being waged over what sits on your dinner plate.

In November, Californians will vote on proposition 37, a controversial measure that would make the state the first in the country to require food producers to label genetically engineered foods.

A few words printed on the side of a box or stuck on a package may seen unobtrusive enough, but opponents are pouring millions of dollars into stopping the ballot initiative in its tracks.

Two biotech companies, Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, who have been on the forefront of crop innovation and have led the GMO food movement, have thrown down more than $12 million alone to stop the initiative. They are part of a growing coalition of grocers, food producers, and farmers who have raised nearly $36 million to beat the referendum in November.

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Proponents of the bill, who have raised $7 million and have used star power to raise awareness about the proposition, say consumers have the right to know what's in their food.

Performers like Danny DeVito, Bill Maher, Dave Matthews and exercise guru Jillian Michaels have spoken up for GMO labeling in a new political ad.

But Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for the "No on 37" campaign says the measure would hit consumers with higher grocery bills, cost the state of California about $1 million a year in administrative costs and make grocers and farmers susceptible to lawsuits.

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One study that was funded by the "No on 37" campaign found that the new law would saddle families with $400 more in grocery bills every year.

That number, however, assumes that companies would chose to remove GMOs from their products and restructure the way they do business if the provision passes.

"The label would be the equivalent of a 'skull and crossbones' when the FDA has ruled along with all the scientific studies that there is no substantial difference between biotech ingredients and other counterparts," Fairbanks says. "Proposition 37 is like no other measure anywhere else in the world. It is anti-science."

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Few scientific studies have found any correlation between health defects and GMOs. While a French scientist released a controversial study last month showing rats grew tumors after eating food containing GMOs, many dismissed it as poorly conducted research.

Fairbanks adds that the law, as it is written, is unfair. Certain products like meat and dairy are exempt from carrying a label. For example, a cow that eats feed containing GMOs and then is sold as filet mignon in grocery stores doesn't have to be packaged with a GMO label. But a bag of dog food made with GMO corn would have to be tagged as such. "It seems nonsensical that we would need to have labelling for pet food, but not for meats," Fairbanks says.

Proponents of the measure, however, say big agri-business would say anything to defeat Proposition 37 because they are afraid that if consumers knew their products were made with GMOs, they would shop around.

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"They are spending this kind of money because their profit model is in jeopardy," says Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stoneyfield Farm and Chairman of Just Label It, a group that lobbies for GMO labeling. "I've been in the yogurt food business for 29 years, I have never met the customer who says 'No, give me the product with synthetic growth hormone."

The intense fight over food labeling has led to a bombardment of radio and television ads.

"We are seeing at least one ad an hour here," says Stacy Malkan, a spokeswoman for California's Right to Know, a group that supports food labeling. "Unfortunately, that is the only thing a lot of voters are seeing about Prop 37."

Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has lobbied hard for food labeling on the federal level, says that ballot initiatives like the one in California are critically important for consumer protection.