SACRAMENTO — A fight over genetically engineered foods has been heating up in the nation's grocery aisles. Now it's headed for the ballot box.
Voters will soon decide whether to make California the first state in the country to require labels on products such as sweet corn whose genes have been altered to make them resistant to pests.
Proposition 37 promises to set up a big-money battle pitting natural food businesses and activists against multinational companies including PepsiCo,Coca-Cola and Kellogg. Backers and opponents have already raised nearly $4 million combined for campaigns to sway voters, an amount that's likely to swell into the tens of millions of dollars as the November election approaches.
So-called GMO foods — those made from genetically modified organisms — have been declared safe by U.S. regulators. But concern persists about the unforeseen consequences of this laboratory tinkering on human health and the environment.
The outcome in California could rattle the entire U.S. food chain. An estimated 70% to 80% of processed foods sold in supermarkets could be affected, industry experts said, along with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. The measure qualified for the California ballot with nearly 1 million signatures; labeling in the state could set a precedent that's followed nationwide.
"This will be a big fight," said Shaun Bowler, a UC Riverside political scientist specializing in initiatives. "This is a popular issue because people are very afraid of the words 'genetically engineered.' And the people who sell this stuff are worried about losing sales."
Backers of the initiative are encouraged by a pair of recent national opinion surveys showing that about 9 out of 10 consumers support labeling. A California-specific poll, released Thursday by the Business Roundtable and the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy, showed Proposition 37 has an almost 3-to-1 ratio of support, with 64.9% of prospective voters favoring it, compared with 23.9% opposed.
"People are interested in knowing what's in their food," said Grant Lundberg, a Sacramento Valley organic rice grower who's helping spearhead Proposition 37. "It's something they think is important."
Opponents say labeling would unfairly besmirch popular and reputable products, raise food prices and spur frivolous lawsuits while doing little to protect the public's health. Passage of the initiative could create a cumbersome patchwork of state food-labeling laws if other states follow California's lead, they contend.
"It really boils down to … guilt by association that makes genetic engineering something bad, a 'Frankenfood,'" said Bob Goldberg, a UCLA plant molecular biologist and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
What's clear is that the genetically modified foods have quickly and quietly become a fixture at the American dinner table. If you ate a bowl of cereal this morning, drank a Coke for lunch or prepared packaged macaroni and cheese or an ear of corn for dinner, then you probably ate something that has been genetically engineered. A majority of the foods on supermarket shelves that come in a box, bag or can probably would need to be labeled if Proposition 37 becomes law.
Most meat and dairy products, eggs, certified organic foods, alcoholic beverages and restaurant meals would be exempt. In addition, foods could not be labeled "natural" if any of their ingredients were genetically engineered.
The initiative defines genetically engineered food as produced from a plant or animal whose biological traits contain DNA that has been manipulated in a laboratory at the cellular level. The technique was pioneered more than two decades ago to boost productivity by making crops resistant to insects, plant diseases, pesticides and herbicides. The biggest successes have been with commodities that are staples in most processed foods. Genetically engineered crops account for about 90% of U.S. corn, soybean and sugar beet production.
And the trend is growing. Genetically modified fresh fruits and vegetables, including Hawaiian papayas, sweet corn, zucchini and yellow squash are now widely sold. Agribusinesses and their seed subsidiaries are pushing to develop melons that taste sweeter, onions that don't bring tears and tomatoes that stay juicy longer.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administrationhas decreed genetically engineered foods to be safe. Although the agency requires that most food products carry labels with detailed health and safety information including ingredients, calories, sodium levels and potential allergic reactions, the agency has ruled that labels need not reflect whether ingredients have been genetically engineered.
TheFDA'slabeling policy has remained essentially unchanged since 1992, when it said it "has no basis for concluding that bioengineered foods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way."
But some consumers and scientists worry about unforeseen risks, such as the potential for GMO foods to cause allergic reactions in humans or contamination of non-genetically engineered fields. Critics also fear that big companies could gain monopolies over supplies of expensive patented seeds that make crops resistant to being doused with herbicides.
"More safety assessments are needed," said Michael Hansen, an evolutionary biologist and senior scientist at Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y.
About 50 countries across Europe, South America and Asia have passed labeling requirements for genetically engineered foods. In the U.S., similar efforts in 20 states, including Oregon, New York and Vermont, failed to overcome opposition from the processed food and biotech industries.
Labels are "very costly, are not going to be informative, and there's absolutely no basis in science for this," said Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of life and health science research initiatives at UC Davis. The labeling campaign, she said, is sowing "fear and doubt." She said organic farmers and food processors could use the initiative as a marketing tool to boost market share for their products, which are typically more expensive.
Proposition 37 supporters contend that if the government, industry and farmers are confident that genetically engineered foods are safe, then they shouldn't mind if consumers know what they're eating. They've dubbed the measure the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.
As proposed, labels saying "genetically engineered" would have to be placed on the front of individual packages of raw GMO food products sold beginning Jan. 1, 2014. Similar labels for bulk food would appear on shelves or bins. Processed foods, including canned, frozen and milled products, would carry labels saying they were "partially produced" or "may be partially produced … with genetic engineering."
Enforcement of the act would be left to state agencies and private attorneys, who can file lawsuits seeking court injunctions against the sale of a product.
The clash is expected to be thick with dueling scientific studies and experts of all kinds, with millions of dollars devoted to television spots. For now, most of the action is on the Internet. Proponents are at carighttoknow.org and opponents at noprop37.com.
"Both sides have fairly credible arguments to make, and they'll dress them up in white coats, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "Expect to see a lot of scientists, a lot of doctors and a lot of parents back and forth all campaign long."