California GMO Labeling Law Headed to Ballot: What Does it Mean?

The California Right to Know campaign obtained approximately 971,126 signatures (almost twice as many as needed) for a ballot initiative that will let voters decide whether genetically engineered foods sold in California must be labeled as such.  Although the campaign focused on the basic idea that consumers have a “right to know” what they’re eating, it fueled concerns about the potential health and environmental impact of GMO’s and framed the issue as a battle between consumers and big food and chemical companies. 

Although the signatures have not yet been verified, everyone expects the proposed law to appear on the ballot for the November 6th general election where it will become law if approved by 50% of the voters.

Under the proposal, known as the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,  a food product would be “misbranded if it is or may have been entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering and that fact is not disclosed.”  Significantly, it would also preclude food companies from “stating or implying” that food made with GMO’s or “processed food” is “natural”, “naturally made”, “naturally grown”, “all natural” “or any words of similar import that would have any tendency to mislead any consumer.”  “Processed food” is broadly and vaguely defined as “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any food produced from a raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing such as canning, smoking, pressing, cooking, freezing, dehydration, fermentation or milling.”  The kicker is that the proposed law would deem any violation as also being a violation of Civil Code section 1770(a)(5) with consumers allowed to bring private causes of action without the requirement to “establish any specific damage from, or prove any reliance on, the alleged violation.”

A group representing a “coalition of family farmers, grocers, food companies, small businesses and others” strongly opposes the proposal and asserts that this measure would:

  • Ban the sale of tens of thousands of common, perfectly safe grocery products in California unless they are specially repackaged and relabeled just for our state.
  • Increase food prices for families by hundreds of dollars per year.
  • Unfairly hurt California family farmers, food companies and grocers.
  • Create a whole new category of frivolous and costly lawsuits that will cost consumers and taxpayers.

The ballot proposal is certainly a troubling development for food companies.  There may be merit to some form of GMO labeling, but it is not served by a one-sided and ambiguous law that is based more on ideology than a full and fair analysis of the issue.