A law on the California ballot to require labeling of genetically engineered foods could affect the entire U.S. food market. Proponents say it's about consumer choice. Critics say it brands such foods as unsafe when they're not.
Proposition 37 would make California the first state to require disclosure labels on all foods that contain any genetically engineered ingredients except meat, milk, alcohol or foods sold in restaurants.
Because most processed foods are shipped regionally or nationally, many companies would have to label much of what they make or reformulate their products to take out genetically engineered ingredients, says Colin Carter, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California-Davis. He says, "They'll just have to do it across the board."
The industry estimates 40% to 75% of processed foods have genetically engineered contents, which can make products cheaper to produce.
Genetically engineered or modified organisms, or GMOs, are ingredients that have been engineered to add genes with traits such as resistance to herbicides used to kill weeds around them. Today, 95% of U.S. sugar beets, 94% of soybeans, 90% of cotton and 88% of feed corn are genetically modified.
In September, polls showed the ballot initiative winning by 2-to-1. However, an ad blitz against it has caused support to wane. A poll by the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Times released Thursday found that 44% of registered voters support the initiative and 42% oppose it.
The measure simply gives consumers information so they can decide whether they want to give genetically engineered foods to their families, says Stacy Malkan, media director of California Right to Know, which supports the initiative.
"Consumer demand should drive what the market provides," she says.
Opponents counter that labels make it seem like genetically modified ingredients are unsafe. The initiative is not "simply a labeling measure," says Kathy Fairbanks of the No on 37 group. She notes that Joseph Mercola, a major funder of the proposition, calls such labels "the equivalent of a skull and crossbones."
Critics say genetically engineered foods are risky. They cite studies, mostly in mice and rats, that have shown possible health dangers such as higher rates of allergies and tumors. The World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences and the Food and Drug Administration say there is no indication they are unsafe. The American Medical Association says "there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods."
The California initiative is important to the whole country, says supporter Michael Pollan, a food writer, because "whatever happens here tends to become the national norm."
Attempts this year to pass mandatory labeling in Vermont and Connecticut failed. A 2002 ballot initiative in Oregon also failed.
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