SACRAMENTO — Despite Tuesday's loss at the polls, proponents of labeling genetically engineered foods vowed to press ahead for tougher regulation nationwide of food with genetically manipulated ingredients.
By 53.1% to 46.9%, voters defeated Proposition 37, a ballot measure that would have made California the first state in the nation to require such labels on some fresh produce and processed foods, such as corn, soybeans and beet sugar, whose DNA has been altered by scientists.
The measure fell victim to a media blitz bankrolled by $46 million in campaign contributions from big biotech companies, including Monsanto Co., grocery manufacturers and agricultural firms.
Opponents successfully argued that Proposition 37 was expensive, bureaucratic and full of illogical loopholes for certain foods, such as meat, dairy products, eggs and alcoholic beverages.
But Proposition 37 co-Chairman Dave Murphy said in a Wednesday conference call that millions of Californians supported the measure and their concerns remain valid. "We believe it's a dynamic moment for the food movement, and we're going forward," he said.
Consumers in California and the rest of the country should have the same "right to know" what's in their food that shoppers have in 61 countries around the world, the Yes campaign insisted.
The food industry said it would oppose attempts to take the fight to other states or to Washington, D.C.
Proposition 37 garnered 4.8 million No votes, compared with 4.3 million votes in favor.
The initiative led in most coastal counties, including Los Angeles County, but lost big in the agricultural strongholds of the Central Valley.
The pro-Proposition 37 coalition, which includes organic farmers, retailers, labor and consumer groups, is already gathering signatures for an initiative campaign, similar to the failed California effort, in Washington state next year. A second effort is tentatively planned for Oregon in 2014.
Moves to pass labeling legislation in Vermont and Connecticut also are under consideration, said Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Assn. "We're now going to take the campaign to the next stage," he said. "We'll keep up public education nationwide and step up our marketplace pressure."
Meanwhile, a national coalition called Just Label It said it would continue asking the Food and Drug Administration to take up the labeling issue. The group also is countering efforts by the food and biotech industries to insert language in a congressional farm bill to limit federal agencies' authority to regulate genetically engineered crops.
Proposition 37's opponents countered that continuing the labeling fight could create hysteria about the safety of America's food supply. The No campaign spent $46 million, mainly on six weeks of critical television commercials that ran statewide. Monsanto, which sells patented seed that resists the company's Roundup herbicide, led the list of No contributors with $8.1 million, followed by E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. with $5.4 million and Pepsico Inc. with $2.5 million.
The Yes campaign spent $9 million, mainly from organic food advocates, organic growers and manufacturers of organic products, and could afford to go on television only in the last two weeks. The biggest bankroller, at $1.2 million, was Mercola.com Health Resources, a privately held Illinois company that operates a "natural health" website. Kent Whealy, the founder of the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve seeds for heirloom plants, gave $1 million.
"Proposition 37 was rejected by the California voters because it was not based on science or facts but rather fear," said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "Such poor public policy should not be replicated at any level of government."
The debate over genetically engineered food has been going on since the crops became widespread in the mid-1990s, said Karen Batra of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
"Labeling foods based on production method isn't informative, but it can potentially scare the consumer into believing the food is somehow different from its conventionally produced counterpart, when science says otherwise," Batra said.
In 1992, the FDA concluded that there was no difference between genetically engineered and non-engineered plants. Morgan Liscinsky, a spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration, said the agency had no comment on the defeat of Proposition 37 or its supporters' plans to push for labeling.