Remember California’s Proposition 37? It was the 2012 ballot initiative that would have required genetically engineered (GE) food sold in California to be labeled as such. Prop. 37 would have also prohibited GE foods sold in California from being labeled “natural.” This aspect of the initiative got less attention, but would have had significant repercussions for food labeling and marketing. Prop. 37 was defeated, with 51.41 percent of California voters voting against it. A similar ballot initiative in Washington, Initiative 522, was also defeated. Many state legislatures have rejected GE labeling bills. Now, state Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) has reignited the GE labeling discussion in California. Evans has introduced Senate Bill 1381, a bill that would require GE food labeling. Evans’ bill is cleaner and more simple than Prop. 37, according to the Center for Food Safety, which has funded GE labeling initiatives in multiple states. However, SB 1381 is drastically different from Prop. 37 in how it will be decided upon. Prop. 37 was a ballot initiative, which is an option available in some states for passing laws by popular vote, and it was rejected by Californian voters, not the California legislature. SB 1381 will have to go through the California legislative process. Thus, if it is accepted or rejected, the action will be taken by California’s elected officials, not voters. The bill, if passed, would require GE food to be labeled as genetically engineered, but food containing only some GE ingredients could be labeled “Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.” The bill prohibits punishment for failure to label GE foods if less than 1 percent of the ingredients in packaged food is genetically engineered or if the producer didn’t know they were using – or didn’t intend to use – GE foods. The bill provides protections for retailers who didn’t know that they were selling mislabeled food, and it also prohibits actions against farmers. Causes of action against unknowing retailers and farmers were a serious concern surrounding Prop. 37, even among those who may have otherwise supported GE labeling. Notably, SB 1381 does not include a provision that would prohibit GE food from being labeled “natural.” The bill’s official text cited many justifications. They include:
- Protecting California’s organic agriculture sector, which has the largest organic farm-gate sales in the country;
- Consumer protection from unintended allergens;
- Consumers’ ability to support more environmentally friendly farming;
- Protecting wild salmon fishermen in case FDA approves AquaBounty’s GE salmon;
- Polls indicating that more than 90 percent of the American public wants to know if their food was genetically engineered;
- The often-cited public “right to know” justification, to support informed purchasing decisions.
A major argument against SB 1381 is that California voters already rejected GE labeling, which could influence how legislators view the bill. However, the Center for Food Safety claims that post-voting polls in California showed that 21 percent of those who voted against Prop. 37 stated that they support GE labeling. If this statistic is true, it could have a major impact on how California legislators understand the public’s perception of GE food labeling. The Golden State has been making other bold and controversial moves in the food law field. For example, see Proposition 2, which passed and requires bigger cages for egg-laying hens, and AB 1437, which applies these rules to out-of-state producers that sell in California (and which the state will be defending against Missouri’s Attorney General). Also, state Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) recently introduced a bill that would require sugar-sweetened beverages sold in California to bear a label stating “STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.” Despite defeats in California and Washington, GE labeling has passed elsewhere. Legislatures in Connecticut and Maine have passed laws that require GE food labeling once certain conditions are met. For the Connecticut law to go into effect, four other states (including at least one border state) with a combined population of at least 20 million must pass GE labeling laws. For Maine’s law to go into effect, four other states contiguous with Maine must pass GE labeling laws.