The rarely noticed clause in Proposition 37

Much has been made of the wording in Proposition 37 about processed foods and the word “natural.” Although the intent seems clear, that the provision was meant to keep only genetically engineered food from carrying the “natural” label, the construction of the initiative is a little sloppy, and the state Legislative Analyst has said that the courts could interpret it to cover any processed food, including olive oil, dried fruit or canned tomatoes.

But there’s another phrase in Proposition 37, which would require labeling of bioengineered food, that has received almost no attention even though it strikes more closely at whether the initiative would achieve its objectives should it pass next week. (The most recent polls have shown a precipitous drop in its popularity after a multimillion-dollar campaign funded by such agribusiness firms as Monsanto and Dow.)

It says that genetically engineered foods would be considered mislabeled unless:

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“In the case of any processed food, in clear and conspicuous language on the front or back of the package of such food, with the words ‘Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering’ or ‘May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.’ ”

If food companies can cover themselves by using the latter wording — that the food may have been partially produced with genetic engineering — the consumer is still left to guess whether there are bioengineered ingredients. There’s no rule that foods without such ingredients have to say so; it would probably be easier and cheaper for food companies to label all their products that way.

But if that happened, the main argument for Proposition 37 — that it’s the consumer’s right to know — would be undermined. Think it wouldn’t happen? How many signs have you seen warning of possible carcinogens somewhere on the premises of a business? Like … everywhere? That was how businesses responded to Proposition 65, the 1986 initiative that required warnings about materials that could cause cancer or reproductive harm. Businesses did what was easiest to make sure they were legally covered, with language so all-encompassing and vague that consumers had no idea what they were being exposed to, or in what amounts. Pretty soon, everyone stopped noticing the ubiquitous wording.

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The initiative would put groceries through extensive new record-keeping requirements and open them to lawsuits if a consumer even thinks food has been mislabeled -- and people might not know any more about their food than they did before.


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