Should genetically altered food be labeled?

California to vote Nov. 6, but effects could be far-reaching

Jim Bridge is not an organic farmer. The plainspoken 62-year-old Plum resident uses some herbicides and pesticides, sparingly, on his 40-acre property. But standing near his cornfield one recent fall day, he declared that he draws the line at genetically engineered crops.

"Here is my argument on the whole deal. When you read the seed catalogs, the licensing agreements for genetically engineered corn say you can't feed animals any of the corn husks, corn stock or any byproduct off those seeds.

"So what the hell am I eating the corn for?"

California voters may be asking themselves the same question Nov. 6, when they cast votes on Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would require food manufacturers to label any raw or processed foods that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

It is yet another chapter in the ongoing war between consumers who are demanding more transparency in food labeling -- remember ground beef's "pink slime" controversy? -- and the food industry, which is constantly balancing issues of safety and profitability.

Nearly 70 percent of processed foods, from soda to soup, contain genetically engineered ingredients, which originate in a lab when a plant's genetic makeup is changed or altered. Genetic engineering allows scientists to splice a specific gene resistant to herbicides into a plant without the trial and error of selective breeding.

Today, nearly 85 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered, according to the Center for Food Safety, as is 91 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of cotton -- which produces the cottonseed oil often used in food products. Six chemical companies own most of the patents for genetically engineered foods -- Monsanto, Dow, BASF, Bayer, Syngenta and DuPont, in order to make crops "Roundup Ready." That popular herbicide killed everything green -- including crops -- until GMOs arrived. Now, farmers can spray Roundup to kill weeds without fear of affecting the corn or the cotton.

There's a lot at stake. California, all by itself, is the eighth-largest economy in the world. Moreover, California develops laws and regulations -- workplace smoking bans, auto emissions standards -- that spread well beyond the state's borders. GMO labeling could, too.

Organic food companies, consumer advocates, lawyers and Whole Foods -- which endorsed Proposition 37 in September after months of pressure from advocates -- have spent about $4 million on advertising. Opponents -- chemical companies, agribusinesses, food manufacturers and other corporations, including two large Pittsburgh companies, Bayer and Heinz -- have spent $30 million. The American Medical Association also opposes the labeling, noting there "is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods, as a class."

Indeed, there is no evidence that GMOs in food are harmful to health. A recent French study that showed rats with giant tumors fed GMO products was roundly criticized for its methodology.


Still, labeling supporters noted that Monsanto and other companies who hold patents on genetically engineered seeds in this country have refused to allow independent scientific studies of possible health or environmental effects. Supporters also cite data showing a dramatic increase in recent years in the use of herbicides and pesticides on genetically altered crops because of the evolution of insects and "superweeds" -- such as giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) -- resistant to spraying.

"It's all about transparency in food labeling," said Stacy Malkan, a spokesman for California Right to Know, the organizers of the ballot initiative. "The jury is still out on the health effects," she added, noting some studies have suggested links to allergies, organ toxicity and immune system problems.

"Still, I should be able to decide what food I want to buy based on what's in it."

But Heinz spokesman Michael Mullen issued a statement calling Proposition 37 "a poorly written measure" that would mandate "that we provide misleading and confusing information to our customers, unnecessarily increase food costs for California consumers, and it will lead to frivolous lawsuits against businesses while adding new costs for California taxpayers."

The Proposition 37 petition says "genetic engineering of plants and animals often causes unintended consequences. Manipulating genes and inserting them into organisms is an imprecise process. The results are not always predictable or controllable, and they can lead to adverse health or environmental consequences."

Actually, there isn't any scientific evidence of that, said Mark Guiltinin, a professor of plant molecular biology at Penn State University.

"Billions of meals have been eaten with food that contains genetically altered material," he said noting that farmers have been crossbreeding crops for centuries, and that the "Green Revolution," development of disease and insect-resistant crops between the 1940s and 1970s, enabled "a lot of hungry people in India and Africa to benefit."

While supporters of Proposition 37 call it "a freedom of choice thing," he said "it's going to cost Californians something like $400 each if they want to have these labels."

Actually, how much would it cost consumers? No one really knows. California's Department of Public Health will have to spend a few hundred thousand to more than $1 million annually to enforce the law, depending on which side is talking.

But nationally, people are paying attention to Proposition 37.

Food writer/activist Michael Pollan is among them. "One of the more interesting things we will learn on Nov. 6 is whether or not there is a 'food movement' in America worthy of the name -- that is, an organized force in our politics capable of demanding change in the food system," Mr. Pollan, whose books include "The Omnivore's Dilemma," wrote in The New York Times last Sunday.

While polls once showed public support for Proposition 37 at 60 percent, those numbers are slipping amid the noisy television and Internet campaign with claims and counterclaims, conspiracy theories, fingerpointing and obfuscating, complete with celebrities on both sides.

Supporters include actor Danny DeVito, rock musician Dave Matthews and comedian Bill Maher. Opponents have Ted Sheely, identified as a "California family farmer," calling Proposition 37 "a complex bureaucratic food labeling proposition ... that would increase costs by billions of dollars."


But most of the confusion seems to be focused not on what would be labeled, but what wouldn't be.

If a food manufacturer is using material from one of the five genetically engineered crops out there -- corn, cotton, soy, sugar beets and canola -- they must label the food. Organic and conventional, non-genetically engineered crops are exempt, but so are most dairy products and alcoholic beverages, because most seed fed to cows, activists believe, already has some GMOs in it, intentionally or not. Fresh meat, eggs and restaurant meals are also exempt, while dog food isn't.

Alcoholic beverages are already highly regulated, and no fresh meat that has been genetically engineered is now on the market, noted Ms. Malkan.

With all those exemptions, the definition of natural, organic and genetically engineered food will simply become more confusing for consumers, said Jennifer Hatcher, a spokeswoman for the Food Marketing Institute in a statement.

Noting that the institute's members "rely heavily on FDA and USDA scientists to determine appropriate and consistent food labeling and enforcement practices that apply to every store and every product in this country," Ms. Hatcher said that passage "would create inconsistencies with what consumers see in California versus every other state in the country. ... The wording of this particular proposition is extremely problematic for retailers as they would be required to pull product from stores immediately following Election Day, resulting in huge labor expenses, loss of product and bare shelves."

That doomsday scenario has not played out in the European Union, which has required labeling of GMOs in food since 1997.

Still there's this pesky fact: GMOs are, for the most part, detectable throughout the entire food supply, thanks to pollen from GMO crops that drift into other non-GMO crops.

Therefore, Proposition 37 exempts crops that are "unintentionally" contaminated, although retailers must get statements from providers attesting to that.

Most food on the market would come under that description, argues Libba Letton, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods, which, as a "big" food store chain selling organic, natural and conventionally grown foods, has been targeted by activists who believe it is secretly supporting efforts to defeat the measure they publicly endorse. Recently, a group calling itself "Organic Spies" secretly filmed Whole Foods staff members giving conflicting responses to questions about GMOs. and posted the video on

While some products in Whole Foods do contain GMOs, "just like stores all over the country, due to the pervasiveness of GMOs, we need to educate our team members more thoroughly so we can provide customers with the facts," said Ms. Letton.

"We are not coaching our people to give bad information," she said, noting that people mistakenly assume that "all the foods in our stores are organic, and when they find out they aren't, they're crushed. There simply isn't enough organic food out there to fill our stores. When apple season is over in Washington state, they're shipped in from South America.

"It's never that simple."

But to some, it is simple.

"If you can't feed this to a pig, why are you eating it?" asked Mr. Bridge, the farmer, about GMO corn feed.

"They don't know what it does. This is a guessing game right now."

Mackenzie Carpenter: or 412-263-1949.


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