Well, if you do not accept my arguments to vote against California Proposition 37, how about those from three large Southern California newspaper editorial boards?
Should genetically modified food be labeled and face more thorough regulation? That is a completely valid question, one that should be the focus of congressional hearings and possible federal legislation.
It is not, however, an issue that should be addressed via a weakly crafted state ballot proposition whose leading donor appears to stand to gain from its passage. We refer, of course, to Proposition 37. Its biggest backer is businessman Joseph Mercola, who runs the “world’s No. 1 natural health website.” Mercola doesn’t just sell a wide range of organic products. He is also a critic of child vaccinations, mammograms and other fundamental tools of medical science.
But Mercola’s key role in advocating the measure is not the prime reason to oppose it. Instead, we agree with the persuasive argument made by Tyler Cowen, the George Mason University economist and New York Times columnist: Proposition 37 “is full of bad ideas and questionable distinctions” and places such a burden on small farmers and retailers that it could kill them off. Cowen also believes, as we do, that the measure has some hard-to-fathom loopholes and could spawn a wave of costly lawsuits.
Proposition 37 may have some value in bringing attention to genetically modified foods and the somewhat laissez faire way with which the U.S. government has monitored their arrival in grocery stores. But it is not good legislation, and we urge its rejection.
Information about the food we eat ought to be readily available and accessible to consumers but Proposition 37 is not the right approach to achieving that outcome. Voters should reject it.
Prop. 37 would require labeling of foods that have been genetically modified. Backers believe that consumers are entitled to know about what is in their food and as such, government should demand labeling. While we would encourage the utmost disclosure especially as it pertains to food, we recognize that information comes at a cost and is best parsed in the marketplace, not with a coercive mandate. And in the case of this particular mandate, its vagueness opens the door to far too many unintended consequences.
Voters should be concerned that Prop. 37 would likely spawn waves of lawsuits, with the litigation and enforcement costs passed on to grocers and the consumers. The initiative’s language invites abuse, as a retailer “generally must be able to document why the product is exempt from labeling.” Prop. 37, according to the state’s independent Legislative Analyst, allows plaintiffs lawyers “to sue without needing to demonstrate that any specific damage occurred as a result of the alleged violation.”
Tom Scott, Executive Director of California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, charged that Prop. 37 would “allow anyone to sue small businesses and family farmers without any proof of a violation or damages.” He is concerned it would propagate “shakedown lawsuits.” We share his concern.
Berkeley attorney James Wheaton, Prop. 37’s author, has made a career of filing lawsuits enabled by Prop. 65. Enacted by voters in 1986, Prop. 65 required disclosure of hazardous chemicals. You’ve probably seen signs in public buildings warning that something on the premises is “known to the state of California to cause cancer.”
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Prop. 65 has spawned “16,000 legal actions – some legitimate, some designed to force business to settle quickly to avoid litigation costs.” Prop. 37 goes a step further. Even the minor checks in Prop. 65, like allowing the state attorney general to review lawsuits for excesses, are eliminated from Prop. 37.
What’s more, trillions of servings of “genetically modified organism” foods have been served up worldwide; and we’ve yet to see significant evidence of harm. The American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, among many others, deny that GMOs are bad for health, to date.
Were Prop. 37 to pass, the effect would be similar to what happens at the gasoline pump, where oil companies produce a California-specific fuel, which artificially drives up the overall price and acts as de facto protectionism. A California-only market for food reduces the food supply and food choices. And moreover,there are no exemptions for small grocers, but plenty for restaurants and alcohol sellers . That’s selective enforcement.
We like a California that makes room for all choices, from Walmart to Whole Foods, and allows consumers to choose what they chew and producers to be free to sell products their customers demand. Disclosure of GMOs isn’t a bad idea, and we would encourage retailers to do so voluntarily, but Prop. 37 is the wrong approach.
Vote No on Prop. 37.
Capricious rules and endless litigation are not consumer protection. Prop. 37 counts on a superficially appealing premise to distract voters from the practical quagmire beneath it. Californians should see this poorly conceived mess for what it is, and reject Prop. 37.
Prop. 37 on the November ballot would impose new labeling requirements on some food made from genetically engineered ingredients. Stores would have to mark such food as produced with genetic engineering, either on package labels or on store shelves.
Foods modified through genetic science are no longer a rarity. In 2011, genetically engineered seeds produced 88 percent of all corn and 94 percent of all soybeans in the United States. The state’s legislative analyst estimates that 40 to 70 percent of food products sold in California grocery stores have some genetically engineered ingredients.
Prop. 37’s promise of giving consumers better information about food has a surface appeal — until consumers dig deeper into the details of this measure. Prop. 37 would apply a new mandate in arbitrary and burdensome ways that would undermine whatever good it purports to accomplish.
The measure, for example, would exempt some foods from the labeling requirements for no discernible reason. Meat from animals that had not been genetically modified would not need the new labels, even if those animals ate genetically engineered feed. Restaurants could serve genetically altered food without any restrictions, even if the same products would require the new labels in grocery stores. And the measure would appear to prohibit food from being marked as “all natural” or “naturally grown” simply for being milled, frozen or otherwise processed — even if the food has no genetically engineered ingredients. So much for providing consumers with clarity.
Prop. 37 would also swamp the food industry in new paperwork. Retailers would be responsible for labeling food correctly — and would have to provide documentation that any food not marked as genetically engineered is exempt from the law. Farmers, food processors and others in the industry might also have to keep such records.
And punctilious record-keeping would be necessary, because the measure would allow private citizens to enforce the law by suing over any labels they suspect are incorrect. Plaintiffs could sue regardless of whether the supposed violation caused any harm — a clear invitation to abuse. A raft of nuisance lawsuits over minor food identification errors would hardly improve California’s already tough business climate.
Common sense says Prop. 37’s demanding requirements, along with the threat of opportunistic lawyers, would likely drive up food prices. Yet the measure would provide consumers with neither reliable information nor real protection.
Prop. 37 is the wrong approach to addressing the merits or dangers of genetically engineered food. Whatever its intent, this badly written, logically muddled initiative stands to do more mischief than good. Voters have no need to create incoherent policy at the ballot box, and should vote no on Prop. 37.
Join me and many Californians – Vote No on Proposition 37.