California lawmakers mull GMO labeling bill

By Len Richardson

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, April 23, 2014 - A bill requiring labeling of packaged foods made with genetically modified crops is winding its way through the legislature in California, the biggest U.S. agricultural state, after a ballot measure on the issue, Proposition 37, was narrowly defeated by voters in 2012.

The legislation, introduced by Sen. Noreen Evans, a Democrat from Santa Rosa, was approved by the Senate Committee on Health in late March and must now must be passed by the Judiciary and Agriculture committees, where it could face strong opposition.

The bill was only able to attract the five votes needed for approval by the Health Committee after Evans agreed to several amendments, including that the legislation exclude alcohol products and that it will not take effect until 2016. The California wine industry alone has an annual impact of $61.5 billion, according to MKF Research LLC. Food provided “ready to eat” in bake sales, restaurants or cafeterias would also be exempted.

Lets Talk Food

The panel's Democratic chairman, Ed Hernandez, and Republican vice chairman, Joel Anderson, both voted against the measure. The final vote for approval was cast by Democrat Lois Wolk, who told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat she still had concerns that provisions in the bill allowing people to sue for alleged violations of the labeling law and to collect attorney's fees could lead to “mischief.”

The bill would require foods containing GMO ingredients to list those ingredients on the label. In the case of GMO raw food commodities that are not separately packaged, retailers would have to place conspicuous labeling on the retail store shelf or bin in which the food is displayed. The legislation also provides protections for retailers who weren't aware they were selling mislabeled food, and it blocks legal action against farmers. Action against unknowing retailers and farmers was a concern surrounding Prop. 37.

The bill is sponsored by a broad-based coalition of environmental, consumer, food groups and small businesses called “Californians for GE Food Labeling.” They include the Biosafety Alliance, CalPIRG (California Public Interest Research Group), Californians for Pesticide Reform, Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, Environmental Working Group, Food & Agriculture Caucus of the Democratic Party, Food & Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, Pesticide Action Network, and Pesticide Watch.

The bill's official text says it's needed to, among other things, protect California's organic agriculture sector, which has the largest organic farm-gate sales in the country, and keep unintended allergens away from consumers. It also says polls indicate more than 90 percent of the American public want to know if their food was genetically engineered.

Representatives of California's food and farming industries have denounced the bill, noting that measures called for in the legislation were already rejected by voters. They also say the bill would expose retailers and farmers to litigation by placing on them the onus of confirming whether products contain genetically-engineered organisms.

Critics also say there's no scientific proof that genetically altered organisms pose a threat to humans.

“The overwhelming scientific evidence is that genetically engineered foods ... are safe,” says Kent Bradford, professor of plant science and director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at University of California at Davis.

He argues that labeling would have a chilling effect on the research and development of drought- and disease-resistance crops, citing as an example Hawaii's papaya industry, which he said was resurrected with the aid of modern technology.

“A bill like this would require those growers to label those products as if they are somehow inferior or stigmatized,” Bradford said.

The food industry has been spending millions to combat GMO-labeling measures. Last year a food labeling initiative was defeated in Washington state with the help of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. The GMA identified about three dozen companies that contributed a combined $7.2 million to help defeat the ballot question. Pepsi was the biggest contributor, giving $1.6 million, followed by Coca-Cola and Nestlé, which each kicked in a little more than $1 million, according to documents. Other contributors included General Mills, Kellogg, Hershey and ConAgra.

The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, is considering legislation that would nullify efforts under way in about two dozen states to require GMO labeling. This bill was drafted by U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan.

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