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Tuesday, Oct 16 2012 11:00 PM

GREG PALLA: Biotech food labeling initiative may sound simple, but it's not

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    Greg Palla

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Proposition 37 is being sold as a simple measure to require labeling of foods with genetically engineered ingredients. But if you look into the details, you'll see that Prop. 37 is much more complicated, costly and flawed than supporters admit.

Prop. 37 will mean higher grocery bills for California consumers, up to an additional $400 a year. It will enact a new avenue for lawyers to file shakedown or meritless lawsuits against grocery retailers, food companies and family farmers. It will result in new state bureaucracy and taxpayer costs. Prop. 37 also includes special interest carve-outs or exemptions that make no sense. And for those of us in California who make our living in agriculture, experts have calculated that this proposition will cost farmers and food producers a jaw-dropping $1.2 billion in higher costs.

Prop. 37 results in all of these negatives without providing any health or safety benefits. Recognizing this, The Californian recently urged voters to reject Prop. 37 in a Nov. 6 editorial titled "More food labels? Not this, not now."

In a nutshell, Prop. 37 amounts to a California-only ban of tens of thousands of perfectly safe, common grocery products containing genetically engineered ingredients, unless they are specially repackaged, relabeled or remade with higher-cost ingredients.

It mandates new paperwork and bureaucratic requirements for California's entire agriculture industry, whether genetically engineered crops are involved or not. This measure exposes farmers and food producers to shakedown lawsuits, because provisions buried in fine print allow trial lawyers to sue family farmers, grocers and small businesses even if they are following the law.

On top of the added costs, Prop. 37 also will lead to needless confusion and even fear among smart consumers looking to make healthy choices. To be clear, I support providing consumers with important food information. But food labeling should be based on fact, not fear.

Prop. 37 will produce misleading and confusing, not helpful, information and ignores overwhelming scientific research that has determined that genetically engineered ingredients are safe. In fact, tens of thousands of common foods are made with ingredients from biotech or genetically engineered crops.

Genetically engineered crops, also called biotech crops, have been used for nearly two decades to grow varieties of corn, soybeans and other crops that resist diseases and insects, use less water and require fewer pesticides. Thousands of common foods are made with ingredients from biotech crops.

The National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association and other venerable scientific bodies have researched genetically engineered foods and endorsed them as safe. In fact, the American Medical Association voted just last June to adopt the policy position that "there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods."

Meanwhile, Prop. 37 is full of politically motivated and bizarre exemptions for foods that can contain genetically engineered ingredients. Prop. 37 requires special labels on soy milk, but exempts dairy products even though cows are fed genetically engineered grains. Alcohol is exempt even though it can contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Under Prop. 37, pet foods containing meat require labels, but all meat for human consumption is exempt. Food imported from foreign countries is exempt if sellers merely include a statement that their products are "GE free." Unscrupulous foreign companies easily could game the system.

The measure also contains a confusing provision that would prohibit any food that is pasteurized, heated, dried, juiced or otherwise processed from being labeled or advertised as "natural," even if there are no GE ingredients in the food. A raw orange could be labeled natural, for example. But when that orange is squeezed into juice (processed) it could no longer be called "natural" orange juice.

Scientists, doctors, small businesses, farmers and economic experts across California are warning about Prop. 37's mountain of hidden costs and unforeseen consequences. All consumers deserve information, but not this way. We all should vote no on Proposition 37.

Greg Palla is a Bakersfield farmer whose family is celebrating its 100th year of farming in Kern County this year.

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