A Losing Proposition on Food Labeling

California's initiative process – which allows "propositions" to be placed on the ballot quite easily – can lead to laws that are muddled, intentionally misleading to voters, and bad public policy. One of these is Proposition 37, which would require labeling of "genetically engineered" foods.

Labeling advocates claim that GE foods are somehow "unnatural" and might be unsafe. And what could be wrong with letting consumers know what's in their food and letting them decide what to buy?

Actually, plenty.

GE foods are not in any way a meaningful "category," which makes any choice of what to include wholly arbitrary. Nor are they unsafe or any less "natural" than thousands of other common foods. Therefore, as federal regulators have said, a mandatory label erroneously implies a meaningful difference where none exists.

Genetic modification has been with us for millennia. Breeders regularly move genes between unrelated species, yielding fruits such as tangelos and pluots. They also routinely use radiation or chemical mutagens on seeds to scramble a plant's DNA to generate new traits. On average, we consume dozens of these genetically improved varieties of fruits, vegetables, and grains every day.

Experience with GE foods? Americans have already consumed more than 3 trillion servings of them with not even a single tummy ache.

Even for shoppers wishing to single out GE foods, Proposition 37 doesn't deliver what it promises. The wording of the initiative is, to be charitable, chaotic and confusing. Many of the foods that meet the initiative's legal definition of "genetically engineered" are explicitly exempted from the labeling requirement, courtesy of special interests.

Cheeses made with a GE clotting agent? Beer and wine fermented with GE yeasts? Milk from cows injected with an engineered growth hormone? They're all exempt, but corn or soybean oil from GE crops – which contain no DNA from the plants themselves – would be captured. Such inconsistencies make it clear that Prop. 37 isn't about giving consumers the information they need to make informed choices; it's about rewarding politically connected interest groups and punishing others.

Activists' claims to the contrary, consumers already have plenty of information about the source of the foods they buy. From 2000-09 alone, roughly 7,000 new foods and beverages with voluntary "GE-free" labeling debuted in U.S. supermarkets. Among these are countless dairy products that proudly advertise their non-GE pedigrees.

The organic industry boasts that certified foods cannot contain GE ingredients, and various food companies and activist groups have created websites, pocket guides, and even smart phone apps that direct purchasers to GE-free products. With all this information freely available, consumers already have what they need to choose.

Labeling only GE foods would stigmatize those products, raise the costs of making them, discourage the use of the technology and encourage money-seeking lawsuits for inconsequential violations. The initiative is a trial lawyer's dream.

Finally, federal law preempts state laws like Prop. 37 that are in conflict. And federal appeals courts have found repeatedly that mandatory labeling must pertain to issues of health or safe use. The labeling required by Prop. 37 does not. If the proposition passes, California would need to spend years and millions of taxpayer dollars defending the indefensible.

Mandatory GE labeling isn't needed; it's deceptive, anti-consumer, abusive to taxpayers and makes no sense. Prop. 37 itself should have a warning label.