For readers outside of California who do not follow state election issues, there was an initiative on the November 6Â ballot that, if passed, would have had profound effects on petfood labeling nationwide. The “California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” better known as Prop #37, enjoyed an early lead in the polls with over 70% of the state population supporting the measure. However, a reported $45.6 million negative campaign apparently swayed voters otherwise, so in the end it lost with approximately 47% in favor and 53% opposed (at last count).
Basically, the new law would have required labels of most food products containing genetically engineered ingredients (GE, also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMO) to bear a small but conspicuous statement on the back panel reading, “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” (see http://vig.cdn.sos.ca.gov/2012/general/pdf/text-proposed-laws-v2.pdf#nameddest=prop37).
While there were hints in the preamble and text of the proposed law that it was intended primarily for human foods, as written that intent was not made clear. By referring only to “food” without further qualification, the law would have not only required petfoods to comply but also horse, poultry and other livestock feeds. Also, while it only affected foods sold in California, on a practical basis most companies would have to had revised labeling (or reformulated products using more costly and less available ingredients) for all states in the US.
Personally, I have no qualms about mandated label declarations regarding the presence of GE ingredients in food or feed. Yes, some potential customers may be put off, but over time many others wouldn’t notice or give it much credence. Those opposed to such a requirement believe it unnecessarily alarmist in that it falsely implies that GE ingredients are intrinsically unsafe. However, the same can be said for colors, preservatives and irradiation, yet those must all be declared under today’s regulatory rubric.
Regardless of what the science supports, in the end it is the consumer’s prerogative to make purchasing decisions, rightly or wrongly, based on information he/she deems important. In my humble opinion, withholding such information can be argued to not be in keeping with current principles of food law and encourages a “don’t worry your pretty little head” attitude by manufacturers toward their customers.
That said, it is good that Prop #37 did not pass, as it was poorly written (perhaps to be intentionally vague). For example, there was question on one aspect of the law whether the term “natural” could be used on the label of any processed food, even if it did not contain any GE ingredients. As I interpreted the proposed language, it did not mandate that extreme measure, but others (including some highly positioned state officials) believed it did.
If that was the case, any food product that was processed in any way (e.g., as simple as a dehydrated apple or a naturally smoked strip of meat without other ingredients) could no longer be claimed as natural. That is in direct conflict with the Association of American Feed Control Officials definition for the term and would have virtually wiped out the entire natural petfood segment of the market.
I was also very concerned about the “bounty hunter” clause written into Prop #37. This allows outside parties to bring suit against a company for noncompliance without the necessity to show actual damages. So, instead of state regulators interpreting and enforcing the law, it would be left to lawyers and judges to decide how the law and its nuances would be applied.
A similar clause in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and California Prop #65 (which requires disclosure of potential cancer-causing chemicals in food and non-food products, public buildings, at the workplace, etc.) has reportedly propagated a host of “shake down” lawsuits against companies even questionably in violation. For example, a small mom-and-pop eating establishment with a restroom that may or may not comply with ADA can be threatened with a lawsuit even though no one was hurt by or complained about lack of access. With payment of a settlement to the lawyer, however, the case goes away, without any mandated improvements to the facilities. In my judgment, this is not the way to “regulate.”
While Prop #37 failed to pass this time around, the concept of GE label disclosure is not likely to go away. The US Food and Drug Administration does not appear inclined to mandate labeling to require disclosure of the presence of GE ingredients at this time, but it would not be unreasonable to expect new initiatives in California or other states down the road.
In the interim, I would suggest to purchasers seeking to avoid GE ingredients to look for US Department of Agriculture-certified organic products. By regulation, products so certified cannot contain GE ingredients, and there is already a system in place to monitor compliance.