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Trageser reports: "Proposition 37 is attracting national attention because of the message it could send about our food."

Jimbo Someck, the owner of Jimbo's Naturally grocery stores, explains the non-GMO labeling he uses in his store. (photo: Nicholas McVicker/KPBS)
Jimbo Someck, the owner of Jimbo's Naturally grocery stores, explains the non-GMO labeling he uses in his store. (photo: Nicholas McVicker/KPBS)

Prop 37 Could Set National Tone On Labeling Genetically Modified Food

By Claire Trageser, KPBS News

17 October 12


imbo Someck is holding what might look like an ordinary bag of potato chips. But the owner of Jimbo's Naturally grocery stores says it isn't.

"As you can see on the front of this bag, there is that non-GMO project label," he says, pointing to the label.

Someck is a supporter of Proposition 37, the state initiative that would require labels for food made from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. It would also prevent GMO food from carrying labels calling it "natural."

GMO food is made from plants with DNA that was manipulated in a laboratory—for example, implanting a potato's DNA with a pesticide to make it naturally resistant to bugs. About 70 percent of grocery store food in the U.S. contains GMO ingredients, according to the Center for Food Safety. And supporters like Someck say consumers have a right to know if their food comes from these GMO crops.

"We know the nutrients, we know the ingredients," Someck said. "Why don't we have the right to know if something is made from GMOs? I think it's only right that we have this."

Proposition 37 is attracting national attention because of the message it could send about our food. The measure would make California the first state in the U.S. to require labeling for genetically modified food.

The question of whether GMO food should be labeled went before the Food and Drug Administration in 1992, when the agency decided the then-new genetically modified crops were similar enough to other crops that they did not need to be regulated or labeled. Some GMO skeptics point out this policy was co-written by a lawyer who used to work with Monsanto, a major producer of GMO seeds.

So while the idea of eating a potato that has pesticide DNA might sound scary, the FDA and many scientists have said GMO food is safe.

Steven Briggs, a biology professor at UC San Diego, studies plant diseases. He said many foods produced from GMO crops do not actually contain genetically modified ingredients. For example, he said sugar is so processed that there's no chemical difference between sugar made from GMO sugar beets and sugar made from organic sugar beets.

"You can do atomic level analysis and sucrose is sucrose," Briggs said. "It doesn't matter how you made it. It's a defined chemical.

"Under Prop 37, exactly the same chemically indistinguishable sugar made from a genetically engineered sugar beet would have to be labeled, but sugar from any other non-genetically engineered source wouldn't be labeled. So this is totally misleading to indicate that somehow they're different when we know they're exactly the same."

A French study released in September riled both the "Yes" and "No" campaigns with its finding that rats fed GMO corn developed tumors and liver and kidney problems. But Briggs said most in the scientific community agree the study has multiple problems, including its research methods and statistical analysis.

"We all agree it's a very flawed study and it would not have been published in most journals," he said. "I think it's going to be a really interesting story if we ever learn about it, about how this made it through the peer review process."

Even if that study is discredited, the fact that research on GMO food is still evolving feeds into Proposition 37 supporters' concerns.

"There's definitely not been enough testing on it to show there's no risk at all, and I certainly don't want, let alone me, my kids to be a science experiment," Someck said.

Because the proposition could set a precedent in the national food industry, donations are piling up from GMO seed-makers like Monsanto and DOW. So far, the "No" campaign has raised $34.5 million, while the "Yes" side has just over $4 million. The biggest donor to the "No" side is Monsanto, which has given more than $7 million, but food makers like Pepsico, Coca Cola, Nestle and General Mills have also made large donations.

The "No" campaign is running TV commercials arguing the measure contains too many special exemptions, will increase food costs and hurt small businesses and farmers.

"The people who are least able to pay are going to be forced to pay more," Ted Sheely, who operates Ted D. Sheely Farms, says in one ad.

Another ad says the proposition is confusing, citing examples like soy milk being labeled while regular milk isn't. But supporters of the measure say the distinction is clear: soy milk comes from a plant, regular milk doesn't.

Opponents also argue against the measure because of cost. The state's legislative analyst says the measure would cost the state anywhere between a few thousand dollars to over $1 million each year to pay for more monitoring of food labels.

Most major newspapers in California recommend a "no" vote on the measure, except The North County Times, which endorsed a "yes" vote. But voters may not be listening: the latest poll from The Los Angeles Times shows 48 percent of voters support labeling genetically modified food.

The "Yes" side also notes that more than 60 countries, including Japan, Russia, China and most in Europe, require labels for genetically modified food.

But biologist Briggs said if the measure passes, GMO labeling will unnecessarily scare consumers.

"A consumer who's out there making their purchasing decisions, they see a warning label," he said. "Because our current labels have integrity, they're going to think that warning label also means something, but we know it doesn't. It tells you nothing about the composition of the food."

Even if there is nothing harmful about GMO food, some supporters say there are other reasons to not want to buy it.

David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps in Escondido, said his company has given more than $360,000 to support Prop 37, even though the measure would not impact his business.

For Bronner, it's not just about the food. He says genetic engineering is an issue of justice.

"It's basically been the chemical industry buying up the seed industry and engineering resistance to their toxic herbicide that are getting dumped more and more on our food," he said. "So this is what we need to know. We need to know about this. People who don't agree, fine, be proud of it, say, 'hey, it's genetically engineered.' You're proud of that, people should know. So what are you afraid of?"

Bronner and Someck said the fight to pass Proposition 37 is a grassroots movement, and they are waiting to see whether their efforts pay off.

"It's the David vs. Goliath, it's the people vs. the dollars, and it's going to be interesting to see how it plays itself out," Someck said. your social media marketing partner


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+11 # Street Level 2012-10-17 22:52
Fat is safe, sodium is safe, calories are safe so why did we bother to put those on a label?
*This will not raise food prices. It hasn't in the 40+ countries that label GMO's and it won't here but drought will.
*Meat is not genetically engineered (salmon is awaiting FDA approval) so it's not labeled whereas pet food (covered under the Sherman Act) can have a high grain content and will be labeled.
*Restaurant/hospital foods are not currently required to have labels whereas packaged food does.
*Alcohol is regulated by a different agency.
*The food companies screaming the loudest label their GMO's in countries that require it and are still in business.
This is the same propaganda that's been staged in every country that has labeled their GMO's and labeling was still implemented.
*For those who choose to ignore the 2yr study because they think it's flawed need to think about this:
Rat's should not develop horrendous tumors or die prematurely from eating "food", period.
+2 # Granny Weatherwax 2012-10-18 07:01
"...But Briggs said most in the scientific community agree the study has multiple problems, ...
"We all agree it's a very flawed study..."

"He says / she says" is not objectivity.
We are talking about science here.
What this Mr Briggs is doing is obfuscating the issue just as the climate denier still maintain (in the US and the UK) that there is no consensus on its existence, its effects or whether man activity has an effect.

The French study appeared in a peer reviewed publication.

In any case one of the pillars of Democracy is a well-informed citizenry - Labels should be mandatory and the fines for misleading packaging should be stiff.
-16 # phantomww 2012-10-17 23:37
Prop 37 is a prop to give the trial lawyers more money. I hope that if it passes that many food companies will just stop selling in CA. Would that be great if companies like Kraft, Post, Kellogg, any food company that uses wheat (bread, pasta etc) just decided to stop selling in CA. That would serve the idiots in CA if this passes.
+3 # MJnevetS 2012-10-18 08:13
Quoting phantomww:
I hope that if it passes that many food companies will just stop selling in CA. That would serve the idiots in CA if this passes.

Yes, it is highly likely (NOT) that ANY company will stop selling to 1/8 of the population of the entire United States (at roughly 12.5% they have 1/8 of the population of the entire country!) Also, it will do NOTHING to give trial lawyers more money, it is a labeling law. A (contingency fee) lawyer can only make money when they are successful in their claim proving that one party did not abide by the relevant standard of care and also prove that as a result there were damages to their client. Then they can get a % of that recovery. Are you assuming that companies will wilfully violate the labeling law if it passes? If that is the case, the problem isn't the attorneys who hold them up to the standards required by law; the problem is the COMPANIES who flagrantly violate state and federal laws and expect that they shouldn't be required to be RESPONSIBLE for THEIR BEHAVIOR. It's amazing how conservatives talk about personal responsibility (something I fully agree with!) and contend 'corporations are people' (Something NEVER intended by the founding fathers, or our constitution, despite Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, etc.) yet they don't believe in CORORATE RE$PON$IBILITY!
-6 # phantomww 2012-10-18 10:16
of course no company will stop selling (or at least any large company), but I wish they would. I also would love to see a company like Altria pull out of some small state that sued it and watch the state reps scream when all the tax money goes away. I am willing to bet that if Altria or any other tobacco company just decided to stop selling in a state that they would be sued by the state and forced to sell and then of course be blamed for all the deaths.

Prop 37 is ALL about lawyers being able to sue. The labeling requirements make no sense. Also, plantiffs can sue and then settle (for less than cost of trial) which will give the ambulance chancers there fee. It has happened all the time with ADA here in CA.
+2 # Street Level 2012-10-18 16:05
The plaintiff gets awarded a refund.
Anyone can sue over anything that's already on a label but don't UNLESS they're lies. Why would they want to lie about what's in the package? Why are they spending a million dollars a day against Prop 37? Why did the "Yes" campaign just have to report the "No" campaign to the Department of Justice?
Answer: Because they illegally used the FDA logo to support a lie about the agency endorsing the "No" campaign.

Remember when the car makers screamed over mandatory seat belts? Then came the fight over safety glass...
0 # phantomww 2012-10-18 21:19
Street level,

Are you saying that if I was a plantiff and I sued because of a bad label that I would ONLY get a refund? So if I bought a $5 box of cookies, I would only get $5 in a judgement? No, pain and suffering? No mental distress? No lawyer fees?

I don't think so.
+3 # wsh 2012-10-18 10:18
YEAH, Phantom!! Just like they did in the EU and other countries that require labelling...oh wait...that didn't happen, did it?

As a matter of fact, I kinda wish those corporations mentioned would STOP SELLING their crap (high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and the chemistry set of preservatives and dyes that make up so much of their products) in my state.

Enjoy your mac and cheese...I'll be having an (organic) apple -- and I'll say something nice at your funeral.
-2 # phantomww 2012-10-18 16:51
What? you hate mac and cheese! How can anybody hate mac and cheese?

We already have labeling on food. Here in CA we even have calories listed when you go to a restaurant so that you can see that french fries are high in calories, like anyone with an IQ larger than their waist didn't already know that. Thank God for the nanny state. I was shocked, shocked mind you to find out that there were soooo many calories in Ben and Jerry's ice cream and Hagen Das and Cold Stone. What would I have done without that knowledge? thank you govt for saving me.
Now excuse me while I go eat some of my home grown raspberries (ALL Organic, no chems).
I don't plan on having a funeral so you will just have to say something nice at some other occasion.
+2 # Regina 2012-10-18 15:13
Dream on......they wouldn't give up the money they get from selling to the most populous state in the country. If you don't like labels, don't read 'em.
+6 # chicodavidrn 2012-10-17 23:52
In an ideal world, Prop 37 is not my favorite solution to the problem - but it's probably the best solution that is actually possible. "GMO" refers to a process - a technique for inserting a gene into an organism. There is simply no possible way by which using that technique, per se, can make food from that organism unwholesome. The problem is in what you DO with the technique - like interting pesticides into a food, or making a plant more herbicide resistant so one can dump massive quantities of that herbicide onto the crop. In an optimal world, where government actually fulfilled its functions, we would carefully and thoughtfully regulate what is done with the GMO process so that it was not put to dangerous and stupid uses. But the agencies that should be doing that regulating are extreme cases of regulatory capture - they are totally run by the industries they are supposed to regulate. And that it unlikely to change. So we are left with the blunt instrument of Prop 37 as the least worst alternative.
+2 # mackochee 2012-10-17 23:58

GMO means genetically modified organism, of which GEO, or genetically engineered organism, is a subset. It is the GEO products that we are really trying to eliminate from our food supply, but not all GMO products.

To that pint, look at the amazing 1970 Nobel Prize winning work by Norman Borlaug, who worked for decades in different regions of Mexico to develop strains of wheat that would improve food supplies in many regions of the world. He worked painstakingly to cross-pollenate different varieties of the same species, (wheat), to create grain with longer growing seasons, more compact and drought resistant strains, and stronger varieties that held up to a range of growing conditions all over the world. He did not mix animal and microbial DNA with plant species as has been done with some GEO products, (salmon DNA in some tomatoes to make them more frost resistant, for example.)

GEO foods are born of the last couple of decades. Their possible risks are exponentially greater than any that could possibly be imagined in the older GMO products produced and consumed for milnia.

We need to discipline ourselves to use this terminology correctly if we are to be taken seriously.
+1 # Dion Giles 2012-10-18 00:12
It's not only safety. There's the Yuk factor. Americans have a right to know what they're eating as in Europe. Who wants to eat a cat pie labelled as chicken even if is perfectly safe?
+6 # RMDC 2012-10-18 04:24
Let's hope Prop 37 wins. But it is likely that food producers will find some way to not label GMO products. I think it is clear to everyone, that if food is labeled GMO it will not sell. Since so much corn, soy, and other products grown in the US are genetically modified, there will be a sudden shortage of non-GMO crop. The GMO corn will be just about worthless while the non-GMO will rise in price. This will be the beginning of the end of GMO. Farmers will choose to plant non-GMO. There are no advantages to GMO for anyone other than the seed producers and patent holders like Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, and a few huge corporations.
+3 # hkatzman 2012-10-18 08:49
"the agency decided the then-new genetically modified crops were similar enough to other crops that they did not need to be regulated or labeled."

Something that has always puzzled me.
If gm-crops are similar enough to other crops not to need regulation, then how is it that these companies are able to aggressively protect intellectual property rights?

Intellectual property rights protects significantly different processes. While government decided they did not need regulation because they were significantly similar to previous products. How is it possible that it is both?
+1 # Califa 2012-10-18 17:31
"rats fed GMO corn developed tumors and liver and kidney problems"

Gee, in the past ten years I've had cancer 3 times, along with chronic kidney disease and about 5 years ago developed gastro-intestin al problems. Hmmmm, by eating orgainc things have improved and my guess is that by not eating GMO's things will improve even more.
+1 # futhark 2012-10-20 11:05
For decades the companies who have developed genetically engineered crops have crowed about how they would reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizers, all the while increasing crop yields. Behind the scenes they were developing herbicide resistant strains to ramp up the sales of their herbicides and creating plants whose seeds are fertile for only one generation, making it impossible for farmers to raise their own seeds for the next season's planting, those monopolizing the world's food supply. Vote YES on Proposition 37 as a way to strike back at the dishonest and exploitive propaganda of the GMO developers.

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