Prop 37 – It’s déjà vu all over again

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 13:  A customer shops...

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In 1986 Californians wanted labels warning them of the toxics polluting their environment. Now with Proposition 37 Californians want labels to warn them of the “pollution” of their foods by biotechnology.

Proposition 37, if passed by the voters, will 1) require that most GE (genetically engineered) foods sold in California be labeled as such, 2) require California’s Department of Public Health to regulate the labeling of such foods, and 3) allow individuals to sue food manufacturers who violate the measure’s labeling provisions.

As that great American philosopher Yogi Berra said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

In 1986, we Californians passed Proposition 65, “The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act,” and Prop 65 is the reason you see signs everywhere, including coffee shops, saying, “Warning! Detectable amounts of chemicals known to the State of California to cause…” You know the rest.

The law has done zip, zilch, nada, nothing to lower cancer rates but has been a boon to raising the standard of living for many lawyers. Consequently, the signs are everywhere, and merchants put up “Prop 65” signs to avoid lawsuits.

In 2011, Starbucks was sued because a cup of coffee, according to the lawsuit, contains anywhere from 4 to 100 times the acceptable level for acrylamide established by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Acrylamide is created during the process of roasting, frying, grilling or baking, and is thought to have something to do with the Mallaird reaction (the chemical reaction that gives toast its distinctive taste).

What did Starbucks do as a result of this lawsuit?  Apparently they decided to put up the Prop 65 warning signs. For the record, brewed coffee has about 5 to 11 parts per billion (ppb) of acrylamide. A greater source for acrylamide comes from French fries such as “Good Health Natural Foods Honey Dijon Mustard Julienne Potato Stix” (1168 ppb).

So, given our experience with Prop 65, how likely is it that is right when it says, “Without labeling of GE foods, we cannot make informed choices about our food”? Not likely.

After all, and be truthful here, in the last twelve months have you modified any of your choices because of a posted Prop 65 sign? Since they are everywhere on everything, they have ceased to be noticed (except by lawyers).

With Prop 37, you can expect to get labels (on pretty much everything from applesauce to zucchini fettuccine) proclaiming, “This product may contain genetically engineered food that the State of California feels uneasy about.”

That Proposition 37 was drafted by the same lawyer who drafted Proposition 65 should give everyone pause—even those supporting labeling. Prop 37 is similar to Prop 65 in at least one way. According to the independent, non-partisan Legislative Analyst, consumers can “sue without needing to demonstrate that any specific damage occurred as a result of the alleged violation.” I cannot come up with any reason why including this provision in the law has anything of value to the general consumer, but I find many reasons why the attorney-author would.

There you have it. Proposition 37 will give you Prop 65 style labels that give you no more information than you have now. Are you better educated about toxic risks due to the Prop 65 signage? No. Do you pay more? Yes. Passage of Proposition 37 means higher food prices due to adding labels to products and the costs of lawsuits against food companies (who then pass their costs on to you).

The capper is that the labels are unnecessary. Many, including the United Nations, say, “The international scientific community agrees that foods derived from the transgenic (i.e., GE) crops currently on the market are safe to eat and have been appropriately evaluated.” Furthermore, they say this biotechnology can help poor farmers “by reducing reliance on toxic agricultural chemicals, lowering production costs…and improving the control of plant and animal diseases…” Lower costs translate to higher standards of living to subsistence farmers in Africa and Asia, if they have markets to sell their produce to. And, the poor in developing countries could get enhanced nutrition through crops such as golden rice, a rice with carotene that could prevent blindness and death of a million children a year.

Call me a shill for Monsanto, but plenty of experts say GE foods can help feed the world better and more economically. Meanwhile, we Californians are arguing over a label that gives us higher food costs and ultimately tells us nothing. I would label it lunacy but that would insult lunatics.


California Legislative Analyst (

Food and Drug Administration. (2011, July 10). Survey Data on Acrylamide in Food: Individual Food Products. Retrieved October 23, 2012, from Food:

Golden Rice Project. Golden Rice Fills the Gap.

United Nations FAO. (2003-4). The State of Food and Agriculture. United Nations FAO.


Marginal Revolution University: GMOs

LA Times: Using junk science to promote Proposition 37.

LA Times: Prop. 37: Another example of the perils of the initiative process

Christian Science Monitor: Prop. 37: Will California be first state to label genetically modified food? How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor The GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas (GENERA) More than 500 studies (1/3 done by indendent researchers) Proposition 37 Doesn’t Go Far Enough

NPR: Top Five Myths Of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted

Progressive Contrarian: California GMO labeling law: Bad science, crackpots and hucksters

Colin A. Carter, Guillaume P. Grue?re, Patrick McLaughlin, and Matthew MacLachlan: California’s Proposition 37: Effects of Mandatory Labeling of GM Food GMO Crops: To Label Or Not To Label

Kevin Folta: Leaving the Limbaughs of the Left: Parting Thoughts on Prop37 Companies set to fight food-label plan California Initiative Puts Profit Ahead of Science-Proposition 37 props up profits for organic growers and denies the scientific consensus in favor of biotech crops. Shoddy Drafting or Part of the Plan?: The “Natural” Problem in California’s Biotech Food Labeling Initiative The Roots Of The Anti-Genetic Engineering Movement? Follow The Money!

Science 2.0: 6 More Good Reasons To Vote No On California Prop 37 Mandated “GMO Food” Disclosure: Labeling for Thee but Not for Me

LA Times: GMO foods: Labels are not necessary, the American Medical Association says. But it recommends safety oversight.

United Nations FAO. (2003-4). The State of Food and Agriculture.

Farm Press Daily: Traditional plant breeding vs. genetic engineering – a primer

Kevin Folta: More Frankenfood Paradox!

Bryan Douglas Caplan: The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

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