Santa Monica Lookout
Santa Monica Council to Take Up Food Labeling Initiative
October 10, 2012 -- Later this month, the Santa Monica City Council will consider whether or not to endorse Proposition 37, the controversial initiative that has generated an avalanche of campaign spending and sparked furious debate between forces decrying intrusive government regulation and consumers demanding the “right to know.”
Proposition 37 -- which the council will weigh in on at its October 23 meeting -- mandates clear labels letting consumers know if foods contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
As more and more of American agriculture is driven by large corporate farming organizations, more and more of our food has been produced through chemical and bio engineering. Prop 37 would require all retailers to clearly label food products that contain GMO-produced ingredients.
Exemptions to the law would include certified-organic foods, meats, cow’s milk, alcoholic beverages and restaurant meals.
And while clear labeling of ingredients in food products is nothing new (complete ingredient listings and nutritional values of food have been required since 1994), opponents to the measure have objected to everything from the added expense of compliance for retailers to their repudiation of the scientific basis for concern of GMO foods.
At the moment, GMO labeling is required in more than 50 countries around the world, including all of Europe. However the science on whether GMOs are detrimental to human health is hotly debated. A recently published study from a French biotech research team found that rats fed GMO corn developed giant tumors and die prematurely.
Opponents of GMO labeling claim the study was flawed and cite “dozens” of other studies proving that GMOs have no discernable harmful effects. But many of those studies stem from much shorter periods of research, and many do not address the fact that the rise in GMO food production has also seen a rise in the use of pesticides (GMO corn and soy, for example, is designed to repel pesticides so its use does not affect plant growth).
All this controversy has resulted in millions of dollars being dumped on advertising this campaign season, with spending of perhaps $4 million by proponents (like Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap and organic food manufacturers) being dwarfed by opponents’ airwave tsunami of almost $40 million. The top contributors to the No on 37 campaign start with the biochemical company Monsanto, who has donated more than $7 million alone.
Other donors to the No on 37 campaign include large corporations whose retail sales might be directly affected by consumers’ possible decision to not purchase GMO-labeled products, such as Dow Agrosciences, Pepsico, Nestle USA, Coca-Cola, ConAgra Foods, Del Monte Foods, General Mills, Hershey Company, Sara Lee Corporation, Cargill, Sunny Delight Beverages and Dole Packaged Foods.
Laura Avery, supervisor of the Santa Monica Farmers Market program since 1982, supports Prop 37, though she emphasized that she wasn’t speaking for the city.
“We in the Sustainable City office believe that the City should take a stand on this,” Avery said. “California consumes 12 percent of all food products produced in this country. We should know what we’re eating.”
Avery’s concern about the testing debate is that most studies center on affects of GMO products on lab animals, with no long-term studies on humans being available. And she says that FDA approval for GMO products is based largely on studies funded by companies that are huge stakeholders in the issue, like Monsanto and ConAgra.
Avery also believes that one of Prop 37’s strongest selling points is that Monsanto and other international food manufacturers already comply with GMO labeling laws in 60 other countries.
“Including China,” Avery said. “But their bottom line will be affected here when people see how much GMO product has entered the food chain.”
In fact, many food corporations who use GMO products have product lines that are touted as “natural,” like Kashi and Gardenburger (manufactured by Kellogg).
Such arguments fall flat with opponents of Prop 37, who claim that the initiative as written isn’t a simple food labeling measure and has too many unsavory consequences. They cite studies that show passage of Prop 37 will add $350 to $400 a year to an average family’s grocery bill every year.
They decry the “special interest” exemptions that require labeling, for example, of soy milk, but not cow’s milk, which frequently comes from cows having been fed growth hormones or antibiotics.
And they denigrate what they deem to be a bill that authorizes frivolous lawsuits against “hard working farming families” without providing any discernable health and safety benefits.
Kathy Fairbanks is the communications liaison for the No on Prop 37 campaign and says that the initiative was written by trial lawyers to benefit civil litigation.
“As written, Prop 37 allows consumers to file suit against anyone involved in the chain that brings a food product to market, from the grocer back to the wholesaler, the seed company and even the family farmer (if something is sold without proper labeling),” Fairbanks said. “Attorneys can file without even showing damages and it will just encourage shakedown settlements. Even the state Legislative Analysts Office called out that one.”
Consumers are getting mixed recommendations from many sources. While there are plenty of public health organizations, food product manufacturers and elected officials who endorse Prop 37, press endorsements have been slow in coming. The Los Angeles Times’ editorial page recently recommended a “No” vote on the initiative.
Avery expects it to be a fight to the finish.
“At one point, Prop 37 polled at 90 percent approval,” she said. “This really is about a consumer’s right to know what he is eating.”
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