Proposition 37 proposes to require food manufacturers to disclose on packaging whether food has been entirely or partially produced through genetic engineering. It also seeks to prevent any foods with genetically modified ingredients from being labeled or advertised as “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” or “all natural.” All foods using those branding terms would have to be 100 percent free of genetically modified ingredients were the measure to pass.

Proponents claim the measure is just an extension of current content labeling requirements and supports the public’s right to know what is in its food. They note that this type of mandatory labeling is already in place in nearly 50 countries, including the European Union, Australia, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. They also point out that most U.S. food and pesticide-producing corporations with genetically modified ingredients export to countries already having genetically modified labeling requirements, so retooling packaging would not be unnecessarily burdensome for those corporations.

Editorial opponents of the measure claim its language is so imprecise and flawed that passage would cause costly litigation that could ultimately raise consumer food prices. The San Francisco Chronicle urges a “no” vote because of the measure’s imprecise language. “Prop. 37 is fraught with vague and problematic provisions that could make it costly for consumers and a legal nightmare for those who grow, process and sell food. … Precision of language matters in law [and] voters will be voting on the language of the law not just the concept.”

As an example of ambiguous language in one of the initiative’s key provisions is a section listing exemptions to branding genetically modified food as “natural.” According to initiative language, misbranding restrictions do not apply when: “Food consisting entirely of, or derived entirely from an animal that has not itself been genetically engineered, regardless of whether such animal has been fed or injected with any genetically engineered food or any drug that has been produced through means of genetic engineering;” or to “Any alcoholic beverage subject to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act” regardless of genetically modified components. Critics also note some exemptions don’t seem to have logical bases for exclusion (restaurant food, cheese, meat and alcohol even with genetically modified components) while actual bases for some exclusions would be impossible to track or challenge because of the wording.

Editorial board opponents also cite the measure’s enforcement clause that authorizes “any person” to bring lawsuits in superior court against offenders, and authorizes the court to “grant a temporary or permanent injunction restraining any person from violating any provision [of the act].” Hypothetically any person could file a complaint against their local grocery store for allegedly improper shelf labeling. This could allow a court to issue a temporary injunction until the matter was properly investigated and resolved. The process could be lengthy and costly.

All opposition funding currently comes from corporations with products potentially affected by the labeling and misbranding requirements of the initiative. That includes pesticide companies Monsanto, DuPont, BASF, Dow, Bayer and Syngenta that make profits through sales products with genetically engineered components. Major food companies that are funding initiative opposition include PepsiCo, Nestle, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, General Mills Kellogg and Hershey. Those companies make many products labeled “natural” (Sun Chips, Naked Juice, Kashi) which would have to be relabeled if the initiative passes because they contain genetically engineered ingredients.

  • So what is the harm to mandatory labeling? According to those who fault the bill’s language, it is costly litigation that would likely raise food prices.
  • What is the advantage to labeling? The public has more information and can make choices based on that information.
  • What is the science that backs the need? Since major corporations hold patents on the genetically engineered material, and that information is protected, little independent research has been conducted in the U.S. about potentially damaging effects of genetically modified food. A recent two-year study in France showed some connection to tumor development after rats were fed a steady diet of genetically modified grain. Currently, the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association state there is no proven health risk from foods or animals whose DNA has been genetically modified.
  • What are some unintended consequences should the initiative pass? According to a Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics University of California study, 70 to 80 percent of processed food already on store shelves contains some genetically modified ingredients. The study posits that consumers, seeing almost all products with genetically modified labeling, would just ignore the labels.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office projects regulatory costs to the state from a few hundred thousand to over one million dollars annually; the LAO also projects some costs to state and local governments for additional litigation resulting from the law.

Supporters include: the Organic Consumers’ Association; organic company Nature’s Path; the Institute for Responsible Technology; Chicago osteopath Joseph Mercola, the largest single financial supporter; and the California Democratic Party.

Opposition ballot signatories include: the executive director of the California Taxpayer Protection Committee and president of the California Small Business Association. Some of the major corporate opposition donors (only major corporations have donated) have been named.

A Sept. 27 Los Angeles Times/USC Dornslife poll shows Proposition 37 likely to pass, with 51 percent in favor and 25 percent opposed.