A high-stakes food fight in California is getting more heated. A proposal to require labeling of foods with genetically engineered ingredients has qualified to appear on the state ballot Nov. 6.
That puts California on the front line of a national fight over genetically engineered crops. Such crops have had their DNA artificially altered by genes from other plants, animals, viruses or bacteria, says Stacy Malkan, a spokeswoman for the California Right to Know group, which launched the ballot measure.
The voter initiative comes 10 years after a similar measure in Oregon failed. Recent attempts to pass labeling laws in Connecticut and Vermont failed in those states' legislatures.
Supporters say California will be different.
"It took us just 10 weeks to gather 971,126 signatures," Malkan says. "People have a right to know what's in the food we eat and feed to our children."
She says voters are concerned about the possible health effects of genetically engineered foods, such as an allergic reaction.
There could be environmental ramifications as well, Malkan says, such as unintentional crop contamination. For example, pollinating bees could carry the genes of a genetically engineered crop to another field that has organic produce.
If passed, the law would take effect July 1, 2014, requiring that all foods containing genetically engineered ingredients be labeled "Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering" or "May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering."
Exceptions: alcohol and food sold in restaurants. Animals that are fed genetically altered food, and are then eaten by humans, are also exempt.
The Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition responded aggressively to news of the proposal vote.
"The funders of this deceptive measure want to put scary-sounding labels on safe, (genetically engineered) products so they can gain market share," says spokeswoman Kathy Fairbanks.
"This is really an attempt to ban" these foods, says Brandon Castillo, another coalition spokesman. Food companies will either face the cost of new labels for the California market or, to avoid the stigma of what he calls "a de facto warning label," reformulate their products to remove genetically engineered ingredients.
"These foods are perfectly safe and thoroughly tested," Castillo says.
The Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition is funded by farmers, food producers, the Council for Biotechnology Information and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
The California Right to Know initiative is funded by thousands of donors, including organic farmers and natural product manufacturers, Malkan says.
An IBOPE Zogby International poll in March found that 87% of U.S. adults agree that genetically modified foods should be labeled.
Labeling of genetically modified foods is required in the European Union and Japan, among other countries. Currently, the only U.S. state that requires labeling is Alaska, where genetically modified fish and shellfish must be labeled. That's in response to a proposal before the Food and Drug Administration to allow sale of salmon that has been genetically modified to grow more quickly than regular salmon.
In crops, genetic engineering is used to boost production or lower costs. The plants are generally modified to resist weed killers or to generate their own insect repellent. Varieties of papaya and summer squash have been engineered to resist viruses.
In the United States, 95% of sugar beets are genetically engineered, 94% of soybeans and 88% of feed corn.
Those are consumed mostly in the form of sugar, corn starch, corn oil, high-fructose corn syrup and various soy products. "It's primarily in processed foods," Malkan says. "It's very minimal in terms of whole foods that people eat."