California’s gearing up for round two of the GMO labeling debate. This time though the battle will be duked out in the state legislature rather than in the public arena.
Photo courtesy Senator Evans’ Office
On Friday, state Senator Noreen Evans, a Democrat from Santa Rosa, introduced a new bill to label GM foods sold in California. SB 1381 would require food sold in state grocery stores to be labeled if it contains genetically engineered ingredients. The bill’s proponents say it is basically a cleaner, more streamlined version of Prop 37, the 2012 ballot initiative to label GMOs that was defeated at the polls.
Sponsored by a coalition of 17 environmental, consumer, food groups, and small businesses called Californians for GE Food Labeling, SB 1381 provides more protections for farmers and retailers, and places limits on potential litigation. The bill will most likely be assigned to the California senate health committee by mid-March.
“This legislation provides more clarity on who’s responsible for labeling or mislabeling,” says Rebecca Spector, West Coast director of the Center for Food Safety, the group that was lead author of the legislation. “The retailer is only responsible for labeling fresh produce at point of purchase. The bill also makes it clear that farmers are not liable unless they have intentionally misled retailers.” The Center, incidentally, had also co-authored Prop 37.
California voters rejected the ballot initiative in 2012 by a less than 3 percent margin. Spector says post-election polling showed that 21 percent of all California voters who voted against Prop. 37 reported they support labeling of GE foods but were confused about certain provisions of the initiative. Also certain provisions in Prop 37, such as banning any processed food from being labeled as natural, had alienated groups like the Natural Products Association, which should typically have been allies.
The new bill, Spector says, doesn’t include this provision. It also minimizes the risk of farmers, food manufacturers, and retailers being sued. “If a company is notified of a violation it will have a 60-day period to correct their labeling prior to a lawsuit moving forward, and there’s no fixed penalty,” Spector says.
The bill has strong support from the district Senator Evans represents, SD2, which spans over one-third of the Northern California coast from Santa Rosa to Eureka and has a huge sustainable farming community. “Those folks are very engaged,” says Teala Schaff, spokesperson for Senator Evans. Schaff says “a lot people from across the nation” too, have been calling since Friday to express support for SB 1381 which she described as “a strong consumer protection bill.”
“People want to know if their food is organic, they want to know how much salt or fat is there… this is no different. It’s not precluding these products from being available in the market,” Schaff says.
Indeed, polls have shown that 93 percent of US citizens want GM foods labeled and the push for labeling has gathering momentum lately. Last year most than half of US states introduced GMO labeling bills, though only two such bills passed in Connecticut and Maine. This year, a GMO labeling bill was just passed by Vermont’s agricultural committee. In March, Albany, NY, and Annapolis, MD, will be holding public hearing on GMO labeling bills, and voters in Oregon will likely vote on a similar initiative this fall.
The new California bill, and labeling initiatives in other states are expected to face stiff opposition from pesticide corporations and industrial food manufacturers, who poured in $44 million on the “No on Prop 37” campaign in 2012. (The “Yes on Prop 37” campaign, in contrast, was able to raise only $7.3 million.)
Already, the influential Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), that won past labeling battles in California and Washington state at huge cost, is looking to the US Congress for a way out. The GMA has formed a new coalition of 28 food and agricultural organizations, called the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, that’s pressing for federal legislation that would preempt state GMO labeling laws.
The coalition released a statement earlier this month saying that a 50-state patchwork of GMO safety and labeling laws would be confusing to consumers and asked the US Congress to pass federal legislation mandating voluntary labeling of GM products.
“The FDA [US Food and Drug Administration], which is the country’s foremost authority on the safe use and labeling of food, should determine food safety and labeling laws —not political campaigns or state legislation,” Claire Parker, spokeswoman for the coalition, said in an email to the Journal today. She said the coalition “is committed to a federal GMO labeling solution that will protect consumers, eliminate confusion and ensure the safety of food ingredients made through the use of modern agricultural biotechnology.”
Most labeling advocates, however, view this as an attempt to stifle public opinion and block consumer choice. They point out that the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food is asking for a measure that would be completely voluntary. Which means companies, retailers could choose not to label their products. “The FDA first approved voluntary labeling 13 years ago, since that time not one company has chosen to voluntarily label their products,” says Spector. A voluntary measure would be even more confusing because some products would be labeled and some not and consumers would be still be left guessing about which food products contain GMOs and which don’t, she says.