Will California Require Labeling for Genetically Engineered Food and Food Products?

In a couple of weeks, Californians will vote on whether to adopt Proposition 37 – required labeling for genetically modified / engineered fresh or processed foods.  The State of California has provided voter information on Prop 37, and the Attorney General has issued a public summary of the law.

Genetically modified or engineered foods are an every-day reality.   Statistics indicate that about 88% of the corn grown in the United States has been genetically engineered to some extent.  As a result an equal percentage of high fructose corn syrup is also GE.  Potatoes, soybeans, squash, sugar beets and tomatoes are also routinely genetically engineered.  Interestingly, if I buy corn at my local grocery store, and it’s labeled organic, there is a possibility that it also be GE.

Proponents of Prop 37 argue that the bill is important for California consumers because it will provide them essential information about the foods they eat. They say consumers have a basic right to know whether products are “natural” or genetically engineered.

Opponents argue that governmental / private entities have done extensive testing on the safety of GE foods and ingredients, that Prop 37 is unbalanced, favors special interest groups and unduly impact small farmers, processors and growers.  They warn that Prop 37 will create new, burdensome requirements on industry.          Many Latin American countries are also debating issues related to genetically modified or engineered foods, including GE animal feed.  Some have prohibited the importation of GE products; others have or are contemplating labeling requirements, one allows the cultivation of GE seeds, but only for export, not for domestic use; a few are just avoiding the issue.  California voters will soon make their own decision.

Prop 37 applies to foods sold at the retail level.  Here are some of the highlights:

  • It mandates that raw and processed foods that are genetically modified or that have GE ingredients be labeled as “Genetically Engineered”.
  • Genetically engineered foods cannot be labeled as “natural”.  The State of California notes that the wording of the law could allow courts to apply this provision to some processed foods, even if they contain no GE ingredients.
  • The following are exempt to some extent: foods unknowingly and unintentionally produced using GE ingredients; food certified as organic; foods certified as non-GE either by the grower / manufacturer or by an independent testing entity; animals that are genetically modified but that are feed GE foods or treated with GE materials; GE foods sold in restaurants for immediate consumption; and processed foods that meet certain de minimus content requirements.
  • Food retailers (grocery stores, etc.) will be responsible for assuring compliance with Prop 37.  They will self-enforce the provisions of the act.  On a practical level, each level of the growing / production stage will have to certify whether the food or product is genetically engineered.
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