Bioengineering labeling initiative rejected

by Jay Sjerven
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Proposition 37, the ballot measure that would have required the mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods sold at retail in the state of California, went down to defeat in the Nov. 6 election. Fifty-three per cent of California voters rejected the proposition. But proponents of the measure and their supporters nationwide vowed to continue efforts to win mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods both in California and in a score of other states.

While the polls were long closed, as of press time Proposition 37 advocates had not actually conceded defeat. After Election Day, California officials still had an estimated 3 million ballots to open and count before the state’s secretary of state affirms the official election results in December. The chance the untallied ballots would change the outcome was remote.

Still, the California Right to Know Campaign and the Organic Consumers Association (O.C.A.), a supporter of Proposition 37, said they and their attorneys would closely monitor the vote count process.

“We will challenge the outcome if the final count indicates more ‘yes’ than ‘no’ votes, or if the results are substantially different from our pre-election polls,” said Ronnie Cummins, director of the O.C.A.

“Win or lose, Proposition 37 is just the beginning,” Mr. Cummins said. “We’ve put G.M.O. (genetically modified organisms) labeling on the national map, and we’ve put ‘big ag’ and ‘big food’ on notice. This movement is stronger than ever, and it’s not going away.”

Activists in the effort to secure mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods seemed to differ on whether they now should concentrate on seeking such labeling at the state or federal level.

In the fall, in advance of the November elections, groups from 27 states and the District of Columbia formed the Coalition of States for Mandatory G.M.O. Labeling to coordinate efforts and to support Proposition 37.

Nancy Doyle, a spokesperson for Minnesota Right to Know, a Minnesota affiliate to the coalition, said the Food and Drug Administration earlier this year dismissed a petition signed by more than a million individuals calling for the labeling of bioengineered foods.

“Citizens will have to fight for their right to know one state at a time,” she said.

Mr. Cummins of the O.C.A. agreed, stating, “Most activists believe our power is in the realm of educating the public, putting pressure in the organic and natural food sector and working at the state level. I think we’re going to get some victories in the next 12 months, and this will put additional pressure on the federal government.”

In contrast, Gary Hirschberg, chairman of Label It Now, and the chairman of Stonyfield Farm, the Londonderry, N.H.-based yogurt company, whose group submitted the petition to the F.D.A. and was continuing to add signatures, maintained in a statement issued Nov. 6, “Ultimately, labeling of G.E. foods will be resolved at the federal level. More than 50 countries require the labeling of G.E. foods, including China, Russia and every member of the European Union. Winning the day in Washington is the mission of the Just Label It coalition and its 600 member organizations.

“Just Label It supports Proposition 37, but its primary strategy has been to petition the F.D.A. to review and update its 20-year-old voluntary guidelines. To date, more than 1.2 million Americans have signed a petition asking the F.D.A. to require labeling.”

David Bancroft, Just Label It’s campaign director, added, “Federal G.E. foods labeling must now be the focus. The same powerful interests that funded the campaign against Proposition 37 have already had their lobbyists insert language in the House version of the farm bill, which, if passed, would strip federal agencies of their authority to regulate G.E. crops. Having seen the support Proposition 37 received, they may also insert other provisions into bills that need to be passed during the lame duck session of Congress. They want to limit any state or federal action that would give Americans the right to know about G.E. foods.”

The next state ballot initiative aimed at winning voters’ support for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods likely will take place in Washington state. There, volunteers with Label It Washington were collecting signatures to place Initiative-522, “The people’s right to know genetically engineered food act,” on the state’s 2013 ballot.

The language of Initiative-522 is similar to that of Proposition 37. Supporters indicated they were well on the way to collecting 320,000 signatures to secure a place for the initiative on next year’s state ballot. They must turn over the petitions to state officials by Dec. 31, 2012. The state requires 241,153 valid signatures. Proponents were seeking 320,000 signatures as insurance.

Oregon labeling proponents indicated they would conduct a petition drive to place the issue on the state’s 2014 ballot. Oregon voters voted down such a proposal 10 years ago.

Labeling advocates in states that do not allow citizen-initiated bills to be placed on election ballots were pursuing their goals by trying to identify sympathetic state representatives to sponsor legislation. Such legislation was considered in 19 state legislatures in the past several months, but none were passed to become law.

Food industry lauds failure of Prop. 37

Agriculture and food industry groups praised California voters for rejecting Proposition 37, which would have required the labeling of bioengineered foods sold at retail in California.

Fifty-three per cent of California voters voted to reject the measure. The result upended earlier expectations that the proposition might pass. Certainly, a concerted advertising campaign by Proposition 37 opponents expounding on reasons why the measure should be rejected was a factor, but so, too, were the published opinions of food scientists and the advice of several of the state’s leading newspapers.

“The Grocery Manufacturers Association and its member companies are pleased that California voters have rejected Proposition 37,” the G.M.A. said following the election. “Proposition 37 was a deeply flawed measure that would have resulted in higher food costs, frivolous lawsuits, and increased state bureaucracies.

“This is a big win for California consumers, taxpayers, businesses and farmers. Foods and beverages that contain genetically engineered ingredients have been exhaustively studied, and all of the leading scientific and regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, have concluded that these products are safe and are not materially different than their traditional counterparts.”

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