Proposition 37: Science, Law, and Consumer Protection

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Californians will vote on whether to require the labeling of foods containing genetically modified products.

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Californians may soon see new warnings labeling food items on their grocery store shelves. Proposition 37 will appear on the state ballot this November, and if passed, the measure would usher in new regulations that would require the labeling of foods containing genetically modified (GM) products.

Biotechnology has seen such an expansion in the past twenty years that today 70-75% of all US food may contain GM products, including 91% of all US soybeans. Until recently however, no regulatory scheme has existed to monitor and label these foods.

Legally, federal requirements for food labeling only pertain to structural changes and material differences, not production differences like the source of genetic modification. Moreover, studies by the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization, as well as over 300 independent studies, have all failed to find scientific risk in consuming GM foods.

Yet consumer choice is central to the debate over GM products in foods. If the presence of GM products in foods does not appear on food labels, consumers wishing to avoid GM foods cannot do so. (In European markets, consumer choice is constrained in an opposite way, as GM food is almost impossible to find.)

Consumer preference is the raison d’etre of labeling laws. Kosher, vegetarian, and irradiated foods are current examples of production-based labeling. Consumers are more willing to buy products they prefer, even sometimes at higher prices. Organic foods, for example, have experienced large market demand notwithstanding their increased cost.

If Californians adopt Proposition 37, the burden of labeling and monitoring GM foods may lead to some increase in food prices, with estimates of such an increase ranging from 0.17% to 10%. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office has also estimated that administering and enforcing the law could add as much as one million dollars in annual budgetary burdens to the state.

Proponents of Proposition 37 argue these costs are worth it. The advocacy organization California Right to Know, for example, has cited the different origins of genetic material as cause for concern, as GM products may create an increased risk of food allergies. If products acquire new allergens through genetic modification, there could be a potential risk of adverse consequences to consumers.

Environmental concerns have also been raised about of GM products. Some GM crops have been engineered to resist the scourge of pesticides, and hence it is reported that farmers often use more pesticides with GM crops. The potential threat of pesticide-immune crops escaping and contaminating other, non-GM plant life raises concerns. So-called “superweeds” could alter the natural environment and quickly choke out native plants.

In addition to requiring labeling, Proposition 37 would allow consumers to file lawsuits against companies that fail to comply with the labeling required under the Proposition.  Attorney fees could be awarded to any prevailing plaintiff that would need to be paid by any losing company. Plaintiffs would also have no need to demonstrate specific injuries from any alleged violation.