- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2012

California could become the first state in the nation to require food producers to label all genetically modified products after activists this week capped a successful petition drive to get the measure on the state’s November ballot.

More than 971,000 signatures from 58 counties - almost twice the legal requirement - were collected in a 10-week ballot drive by the California Right to Know initiative, the group announced Wednesday afternoon at victory rallies held around the state.

“We certainly believe it’s a monumental achievement,” said Stacy Malkan, media director for the campaign. Five to six weeks will be needed to certify the signatures.

“We’re expecting to be on the ballot in November and we’re expecting a victory,” Ms. Malkan said. “We’ve seen huge support in the polls, with 91 percent of people in our state in national polls saying they support the labeling of genetically engineered foods.”

Nineteen states have considered bills on genetically modified food, including most recently Vermont, where backers have been stymied trying to hammer out a deal in the state legislature. Another legislative attempt remains alive in Connecticut.

But the California voter initiative is likely to meet fierce resistance from agricultural and business interests, who predict it will prove costly both for growers and consumers. Opponents warn the measure constitutes a “right to sue” initiative that will undercut sales of numerous food items that have been consumed safely for years.

The California Farm Bureau opposes the ballot initiative, along with the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Seed Association, the California Grain and Feed Association, and California Women for Agriculture.

Jamie Johansson, vice president of the California Farm Bureau and an olive farmer from Oroville, Calif., said the initiative puts an enormous burden on growers and packagers, and it prevents any processed food from being labeled as “natural.”

An apple, for example, wouldn’t require a label, but it would if it were ground into apple sauce. The same for almonds: They are fine picked raw, but ground into almond butter, even without any other ingredients, they would not pass the test under provisions of the proposed label law.

The California proposal would mandate a label for foods in which more than 0.5 percent of the product is a genetically modified ingredient. The proposal exempts meat, dairy foods and beer.

Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the University of California Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program, called the labeling proposal “completely blown out of context.”

“Tome,theissuewiththisasascientistisyouarefocusingonthelabelingofprocessratherthanthelabelingofproduct,” she said. “Theissueforsafetyshouldbeontheproductitselfifyouaregoingtolookatrisk-assessmentandwhethersomethingshouldbeofconcerntotheconsumer.

“Youdon’thavealabelonsausagetellingyouhowtheyaremadeandyouprobablywouldn’twantone.Forbiotechproducts,theissuesareanindividual’srightstoknow.Ifyouweregoingtoasktosupplyallinformationmadeonaprocessedcrop,you’dhaveawholeencyclopediaattachedtoeverythingonyourgroceryshelf.”

Food safety advocates argue the cost will be minimal and that such labeling has been successfully imposed across Europe and in other countries around the world.