Proposition 37 campaign is about everything but the meat

What would the labels have to say if Proposition 37 passes? That's not clear.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth over the last few days on Proposition 37, the initiative to require labeling of genetically engineered foods. Too bad that almost none of it has had anything to do with whether or not this is a worthy measure.

Supporters of 37 raised a stink about the opposition campaign’s alleged misuse of a quote from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The campaign had implied, wrongly, that the FDA had said Proposition 37 would lead to “inherently misleading” labeling.

The yes-on-37 campaign might have been better off staying away from that one. True, the FDA hasn’t weighed in on Proposition 37, but it did say, in a 2009 report written with the U.S. Department of Agriculture:


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“Moreover, mandatory method-of-production GM/GE labeling would likely be inherently misleading.” That’s pretty clear. So on the technicalities, the yes-on-37 forces were right, but on the basic stance of the U.S. government, the opposition wasn’t exactly misleading the public.

But the yes forces then flubbed by saying in a blaring news release headline that the FBI was investigating the FDA plug. The opposition then released a statement from the Department of Justice saying there was no such investigation. Who’s stretching the truth now, the opposition sneered.

Oh, there’s more in the way of claims made and then denied by the groups that supposedly made certain statements, on both sides. But all of it serves to distract voters from figuring out whether this proposition is a good idea.

Genetically engineered food might not be the most important issue on Tuesday’s ballot, but it’s been one of the most heated and emotional. And that shouldn’t hide the truth of the matter: It’s a poorly written proposition. It opens up a whole new world of possible lawsuits by people who were never harmed in any way. It probably wouldn’t make consumers any better informed, both because of squishy wording -- companies could simply label everything as possibly containing bioengineered ingredients -- and because of the many exceptions written into the initiative. It isn’t logical either -- you might be able to tell whether your food’s DNA has ever seen the inside of a laboratory but not whether it was sprayed for pesticides or fed ridiculous amounts of antibiotics, which weren’t used to treat disease but to promote growth. It would require a slew of paperwork.

The Time’s editorial board is all in favor of better information on labels, but that’s not what consumers are most likely to get out of Proposition 37. No amount of hype about who said what or spent how much is going to change this non-bioengineered sow’s ear into a silk purse.


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