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California referendum would have required label on GMO foods

Nov. 8, 2012 | 0 comments

Besides the selection of a president for the next four years and numerous Congressional office holders, a number of states considered a variety of questions and ballot initiatives in Tuesday's elections.

In California, voters turned back Proposition 37, which would have required that foods containing genetically engineered products be labeled as such.

Placed on the ballot as a consumer's right to know measure, Prop 37, as it was called, became a flashpoint between food activists and the biotechnology companies who are responsible for GMOs - genetically modified organisms.

With 95 percent of the state's votes counted on Wednesday morning (Nov. 7) California officials reported the proposition had been defeated by a 53-47 percent margin.

Polling in the state showed that citizens had changed their minds over the course of the debate on Prop 37. In a poll taken last month 61 percent of voters were in support of the measure while 25 percent opposed it.

But as Election Day got closer, new polls showed that the initiative only retained 44 percent of the potential vote while 42 percent opposed it.

Voters told pollsters from the Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California's College of Arts and Letters that they changed their views after considerable television advertising urged a "no" vote.

Corporations led by Monsanto, Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Nestle USA Inc. reportedly spent over $40 million to get Californians to vote against the proposition.

Those ads featured farmers, doctors and scientists talking about the downside of the proposition, with exemptions that might confuse some consumers and highlighting the possibility that the rule would increase consumer food costs and lead to litigation.

The proposition was successfully placed on the statewide ballot by consumer groups, food activists and organic growers but their financial ability to counter the corporate funding of opponents was evident.

In the campaign fight, a diversified group of independent food manufacturers, retailers and activists with a commitment to the principles of sustainable agriculture made contributions to the "Yes on 37" campaign.

Media reports put their financial contributions at about $6.7 million to support advertising to try to get the measure passed.

The Los Angeles City Council voted to support Prop 37, but the Times and at least 39 other California newspapers came out in opposition to the measure. Some published two or more editorials in opposition.

Backers of the measure complained last week that labeling foes were using phony groups to sway voters against the measure. Mailers sent to voters purported to be from the Democratic Party, or other groups that were on record in support of the measure, and urged a "no" vote.

Dave Murphy, co-chair of the state's "Yes on 37" campaign said voters let them know of many such fake voter guides purporting to be from green groups, literacy organizations and police, which urged a "no" vote.

Mark Kastel, co-director of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, said the measure would have required informational labeling on the GMO content of foods sold in California.

He said many food activists across the nation looked to the Prop 37 initiative as the "last best hope" for GMO labeling in the country. According to Kastel such labeling is required throughout the European Union and by scores of other countries worldwide.

Kastel said the failure of Prop 37 doesn't leave consumers completely in the dark about genetically engineered (GE) foods, since foods without GE ingredients are already widely available under the USDA "organic" seal.

Federal law prohibits the use of GE seed or ingredients in any product labeled "organic."

Despite the defeat of Prop 37, Kastel believes the campaign for GMO labeling achieved at least one goal - it has likely increased the awareness of California consumers about the genetically engineered content of their food.

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