Election 2012: Food Labeling

Retailers rally against requirement for genetically altered foods

Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- If passed, a highly contested measure on California’s ballot, Proposition 37, would require manufacturers and retailers to label food that has been genetically modified, a rule that would have resounding effects considering a majority of the nation’s corn and soybean crops fall into this category.

Concerns for retailers are numerous, according to Jay McKeeman, vice president of government relations and communications for the California Independent Oil Marketers Association (CIOMA), Sacramento, Calif. The biggest concern is access to information.

“It would make store owners responsible for knowing if food has been genetically engineered,” McKeeman told CSP Daily News. “Unless a food manufacturer tells you, you have no idea.”

Fred Faulkner, sales and marketing manager for Jaco Oil Co. and its Fastrip convenience stores, Bakersfield, Calif., agrees with McKeeman, telling CSP Daily News that it’s a “poorly written bill and just another burden on California farmers, food manufacturers and retailers. This bill doesn’t help make food safer or more affordable.”

Polls have put the contest in a dead heat, with support having waned for the measure since it first made the ballot. A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll published last week showed 44% of respondents supporting the proposed rule while 42% opposed it. A “substantial” 14% were undecided, theTimes reported. But support has eroded, with an earlier poll conducted by the same organizations showing support for the proposition at 61%, opposition at 25% and again, undecided at 14%.

A number of factors are at play, including a reported $41 million from manufacturers and other affected parties to fund ad campaigns opposing the measure. Supporters of the initiative, which includes producers of organically grown crops, raised a reported $6.7 million in comparison.

Proponents of the measure seem undaunted. “This is ours to win,” Proposition 37 spokesperson Stacy Malkan told the Times. “Our polls show that when people see our message--that we have a right to know what’s in the food we’re eating and feeding our families--our numbers go back up.”

If passed, the rule would:

  • Require labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if the food is made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways.
  • Prohibit labeling or advertising such food as “natural.”
  • Exempt from this requirement foods that are “certified organic; unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material; made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves; processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients; administered for treatment of medical conditions; sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant; or alcoholic beverages.”

According to an opposition website, noprop37.com, the measure is flawed. “Soy milk is covered but cow’s milk is exempt. Dog food with meat requires a label, but meat for human consumption is exempt. Dairy, eggs, meat and poultry are all exempt. Food sold in a grocery store is covered, but the same exact food sold in a restaurant is exempt. These absurd exemptions make no sense.”

McKeeman of CIOMA said supporters of the measure initially persuaded Californians by keeping the message simple in that it was merely an issue of labeling. But the liability that falls on manufacturers and retailers presents an even deeper threat of litigation. He said language in the proposal lets enforcement fall to “plaintiffs’ attorneys.”

A few years ago, California adopted a similar proposition regarding substances that may cause cancer or birth defects. Those failing to execute the labeling became targets for lawsuits. “It created a whole cottage industry for plaintiffs’ attorneys,” McKeeman said.

Former NACS chairman and California retailer Tom Robinson told CSP Daily News that Prop 37 is another in the long list of California initiatives that sound good--Who doesn’t want to know what they are eating?--but creates a compliance nightmare for food manufacturers and retailers.

“Compliance nightmares raise costs throughout the distribution chain, usually resulting in higher cost to California consumers,” said the president and CEO of Robinson Oil Co., Santa Clara, Calif. “Particularly annoying is the opportunity for ambulance-chasing attorneys to ‘enforce’ these requirements. Only the law industry clearly benefits from the passage of this proposition.”

Angel Abcede, CSP/Winsight By Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP
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