As Election Day approaches, the biotechnology and food industries are looking anxiously westward to California, where a ballot measure that would require labels on genetically modified foods will go before voters.
The contentious fight over the measure, Proposition 37, has escalated in recent weeks as chemical, biotechnology and food manufacturing businesses have ponied up more than $45 million in an attempt to sway voters.
Leading the pack is Creve Couer-based Monsanto Co., the world's largest agricultural biotechnology company, which has spent more than $8 million to defeat the labeling initiative, nearly $3 million more than rival DuPont, according to the California secretary of state's office.
That spending dwarfs the sum amassed by groups in favor of the measure, which have gathered only $7 million. The influx of cash seems to be having an impact. Previous polls had consistently shown the measure passing, but a poll released last week showed that slightly more than 50 percent of voters are against it.
"It'll be a miracle if it passes now," said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of the "Just Label It" campaign, which is spearheading an effort to draft a federal labeling law.
In the last couple of months, California voters have been bombarded with ads, fliers and calls from both sides, each claiming that the other is waging a deceptive campaign. Opponents have used the muscle of large corporations and farm groups; proponents have enlisted celebrities and a last-minute press push.
Those in favor of the measure say the matter is simple: Consumers should know whether genetically modified ingredients are in their foods.
"The wording is simple and clear, and it will not cost customers a dime," said Andrew Kimbrell, of the Center for Food Safety, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Those against it say the measure is badly drafted, will unnecessarily scare consumers and will open the door to lawsuits against retailers, farmers and seed companies, driving up the cost of food. And they worry that other states could follow California's example.
"It will lead to shakedown lawsuits, higher costs, more state bureaucracy, and there are exemptions that were done for political reasons that make no sense," said Kathy Fairbanks, of the "No on 37" campaign.
The law would require retailers and manufacturers to label any genetically engineered produce or processed food that contains a genetically modified ingredient. An estimated 60 percent of foods in the typical American grocery store -- everything from ketchup to cereal -- contain genetically modified ingredients, mostly from corn or soy. Alcohol, dairy products and meat are among the exempted products.
Fairbanks said the measure would allow lawyers to sue for any violations of the law.
"They can be roped into the shakedown," she said. "It starts with the grocery retailer, but then goes all the way to the farmer and to the seed companies. ... It's a huge target, and very lucrative."
Monsanto did not provide a representative for an interview, instead referring questions to Fairbanks. Bunge North America, a grain dealer and processor, and Solae, a soy ingredients company, both based in St. Louis, also contributed to the "No on 37" campaign. Bunge did not reply to a request for comment, and Solae also referred questions to Fairbanks.
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