Food lobby says defeating California measure is highest priority
The food industry is ramping up for a major battle to defeat a ballot measure in California this fall that would require foods to be labeled as “Genetically Engineered” if the product contains ingredients from biotech products.
Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), told farmers from the American Soybean Association that defeating the California labeling initiative “is the single-highest priority for GMA this year.”
Californians will vote on the “Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act” on the November ballot. Bailey called the ballot measure “a serious, longterm threat to the viability of biotech in agriculture,” adding that it would lead down a path similar to Europe where biotech crops are opposed and face multiple barriers to production.
More labeling initiatives will happen or attempts at legislation if biotech supporters lose in California, Bailey said.
The key driver in the California initiative is a “vocal, activist organic movement” seeking to expand by causing consumers to question food ingredients from genetically engineered crops. Social media also are inflaming the effort, Bailey said, making it more difficult to confront.
“Labeling is not their ultimate objective,” she said.
“They want to limit biotech products.”
That’s certainly an issue for farmers when roughly 94 percent of soybean and 88 percent of corn acres are planted with biotech varieties.
Ellen Kullman, president and CEO of DuPont, told soybean growers the ballot measure implies there are problems with biotech crops despite the regulatory regime, safeguards and years of production and food processing without any proven scientific problems. While farmers have struggled to explain the benefits, a labeling campaign creates a one-sided argument.
“That’s not going in the right direction. The world really needs more food productivity. The power of science can really get that done in a very transparent way and scientific framework.
The label would be required on foods with ingredients from genetically engineered crops and would require “Genetically Engineered,” or “May be partially produced by Genetically Engineered ingredients.” Along with that, it would ban the term “natural,” or “naturally made” if the food product is processed, which actually has nothing directly to do with whether an ingredient comes from a biotech crop. If passed, the measure would go into effect in July 2014.
Food manufacturers stake their reputations on the safety of their products, Bailey said, and don’t appreciate a label that would erroneously question the safety of an ingredient. “Anything that implies their products are not safe is a very serious concern,” Bailey said.
Further, Bailey said the initiative, if adopted, would effectively be regulated through litigation.
Attorneys would bring lawsuits challenging the ingredients and whether a product should be labeled.
The ballot measure also has a host of exemptions, including food in restaurants, dairy, meat and alcohol. Imported foods would be exempt as well if they have a “GMO-free” declaration, Bailey said.
A study by GMA cited that California consumers could end up paying as much as $825 more per family annually because of the increased segregation, ingredient substitution and record-keeping required under the measure. Overall, industry and consumer costs would range from $8.2 billion to $10.7 billion, according to the GMA study.
In polling, Bailey said Californians are uncomfortable over the exemptions allowed under the proposition, as well as the potential higher costs. Yet, as DTN reported last month, backers got more than 1 million signatures in California to put the measure on the ballot.
Agricultural and grocery interests have created Californians Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition to counter the ballot measure. Bailey declined to say how much the group expects to spend to defeat the proposition. The groups also are looking at legal challenges should the proposition pass.
Groups opposing the ballot measure got a boost last month when the American Medical Association stated there was no scientific justification for labeling food that has ingredients from genetically engineered crops. A U.S. Senate vote last month that would allow states to label such foods also failed.
Bailey acknowledged the ballot fight in California highlights the problems of trying to explain the benefits of biotechnology to average consumers. Food companies and farm groups have failed to stress not only the safety of such crops, but the other positive elements.
“This is a topic all of our organizations are struggling with,” Bailey said. — Chris Clayton, DTN