The nation's biggest food companies don't dabble in California politics very much, but they know how to read a poll. And with early surveys showing big support for an initiative to require new labels on genetically modified foods, Big Food is ponying up big cash.
On Friday, the campaign to defeat Proposition 37 reported $9.9 million in contributions from almost three dozen different food and agriculture companies. The No on 37 campaign now sits on about $12 million with the fall campaign just around the corner.
Prop 37 would require labels on foods that have been "genetically engineered." According to the Legislative Analyst's Office review of the measure (PDF), between 40 percent and 70 percent of food sold in California grocery stores contain some genetically engineered ingredients.
Retailers would have to make sure these foods were properly labeled, and Prop 37 would place new limits on foods that could be called "natural." Supporters and opponents have been fighting in court over the official ballot summary materials and whether the initiative's labeling rules go beyond foods that have genetically modified ingredients.
Supporters of the initiative will no doubt run a campaign that makes it sound like a simple law that ensures more food disclosure, and they start out with what appears to be a huge political advantage. In a poll last week sponsored by Pepperdine University and the California Business Roundtable, 69 percent of respondents supported Prop 37.
And that's why the nation's biggest food and agriculture interests are stockpiling cash - in an effort to convince Prop 37 is more complicated, and costly, than how it's now perceived.
The No on 37 cash reported late Friday comes from a who's who of the food business: Nestle, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the J.M. Smucker Company, Campbells Soup, and so on. It also includes big contributions from other important, but not so well known, industry leaders like the biotech corporation Syngenta.
The Yes on Prop 37 campaign, which hopes to make this a campaign about the public's "right to know what we eat," has raised $2.4 million so far, largely from organic food interests. They will no doubt be vastly outspent in the campaign to come but, given the big poll advantage they have, that's not necessarily a death knell.
For the food and agriculture interests hoping to defeat the initiative, the goal is to convince voters that the measure is -- in their words -- "deceptive" and prone to creating more "bureaucracy" and "frivolous lawsuits" over food labels. And the money they've raised will help get that message out there.
There are eleven propositions on the November ballot, many of which could be called high profile fights. Prop 37 has been quiet so far, but given the subject matter - food - you can bet it's going to be much talked about between now and Election Day.