Mandatory Labeling Bill for GE Foods in California


Foods Altered Genetically Face Labeling

By Mitchel Benson
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal / California
SACRAMENTO -- Two Senate Democrats here don't want to wait for the
federal government to decide whether consumers should be warned when they
buy genetically modified foods. They want California to act now.
In the days following last week's U.S. Food and Drug Administration
hearing in Oakland on the question, Sen. Tom Hayden of Los Angeles already
has drafted, and Sen. Byron Sher of Stanford says he's seriously
considering, legislation to require labeling of such foods.
Sen. Hayden's proposal, to be introduced in January, goes further,
requiring the labeling of genetically engineered seeds, in addition to
modified raw and processed foods. Sen. Sher says "that might be a logical
part of disclosure. It's possible we may take different approaches [but] I
haven't had a chance to look at his bill."
Supporters of genetic engineering say gene splicing has given farmers a
valuable tool to grow healthier and more-abundant crops. But opponents,
including some organic farmers, are concerned the technique could create
mutant pollens and food products that could harm beneficial insects and
neighboring plants and aggravate allergies in people.
Sens. Hayden and Sher say mandatory labeling is needed as much for
consumer choice and public information as for any purported health concerns
raised by the altered food products. "I want to know what I'm putting into
my stomach," says Mr. Hayden. "My primary concern would be the preservation
of the democratic process against manipulation and invisibility."
But the California Farm Bureau Federation, which staunchly opposes
mandatory labeling, says such laws would unnecessarily frighten consumers,
force a big jump in labeling and food-testing costs that would be passed on
to consumers and, ultimately, hurt food sales.
"We're not against consumer information if it tells you something," says
Cynthia Cory, director of marketing and labor for the 85,000-member state
farming organization. "But we are against warning labels when we think
they're warning you about something that's not a threat."
Even so, Ms. Cory, a geneticist by training, admits it's the advocates of
genetically engineered foods who must shoulder the blame for much of the
consumer confusion. "It's understandable that people are scared," she says,
"because these are scary words, because the science community and firms
that have come up with [the technology] have done a really bad job -- an
abysmal job -- of educating consumers."
Sen. Hayden says that's where his labeling proposal comes in. His measure
would define seeds or food as genetically engineered if they have been
"altered or produced through genetic modification from a donor, vector or
recipient organism" using DNA techniques.
"Public anxiety, it would seem to me," says the senator, "would be
increased by the secrecy, or has been increased by the secrecy. Anybody
that's an advocate of the marketplace should favor consumer information and
consumer choice."
These proposals come at a time when both agribusiness and the political
and regulatory worlds are abuzz over the future of genetically modified
foods, in which scientists splice a single gene from one organism to
another. Indeed, the FDA's Dec. 13 hearing in Oakland was the last of three
such meetings the agency has held nationwide to help it decide whether
stricter safety and labeling rules are needed.
Last month, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Ohio) introduced legislation
in Congress to require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.
And just last week, a group of class-action lawyers filed a suit against
Monsanto Co. in federal district court in Washington, D.C., alleging that
the St. Louis-based company didn't adequately test the safety of its
genetically modified corn and soybean plants. In addition, the suit alleges
that Monsanto's patented genes give it too much control over how staple
crops are used.
A Monsanto attorney attacks the suit's "outrageous allegations," and says
he doesn't "have much doubt we will defeat this lawsuit."
Here in California, meantime, an all-volunteer group opposed to
genetically modified foods has begun a low-budget, Internet-based petition
drive to place a mandatory-labeling provision on the November 2000 ballot.
"It seems to me that in a free society we should have a right to know and
to have public disclosure," says Robert Cannard, a Sonoma Valley organic
farmer leading the effort.
Stuck somewhat in the middle is Peggy Lemaux, a research scientist and
cooperative extension specialist at the University of California-Berkeley.
Ms. Lemaux says she's served as a liaison between the university and the
public for 10 years. She opposes mandatory labeling "because I don't think
food should go in the direction where there would be legal battles over the
labels on a can of tomato paste."
But if lawmakers determine there must be labels, her choice is something
that says the product "may contain a genetically modified organism." In
that regard, it would serve to notify consumers and, perhaps just as
important, put the financial onus on nonmodified producers to determine
that their products are free of genetic engineering and that they could
label them as such.
"If there is a consumer desire for non-[genetically altered] foods," she
says, "an industry will arise to fill that role."