I'll be honest with you; i've been avoiding reading, or writing, about Proposition 37 because it's complicated and it's hard.
I should note at the outset that I have two underlying biases in this discussion which somewhat conflict with each other:
* i'm generally in favor of labelling; more information is good
* i'm aware that as the quantity of labelled information goes up, there's a potential for information overload, and that one of the biggest problems in label design is deciding what information is useful and important.
This latter one was informed by the study of contract law and arbitration law; one of the problems with long contracts full of fine print is that there's too much being said, and too little in the way of guideposts for the lay user to help them figure out what they need to care about and what is just boilerplate babble.
The conflict between these two can only be resolved in one way: labelling is good, but ONLY if the information being labelled is important, and if the label conveys meaning.
I could not vote for Proposition 37 for that reason.
Proposition 37 changes the Health and Safety Code by declaring:
> any food offered for retail sale in California is misbranded if it is or may have been entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering and that fact is not disclosed.
Right off the bat, this fails for me. Assume for the moment that it's valuable information, whether something has been produced with genetic engineering (I think it probably is, on balance, although smart friends of mine disagree with me). Assume for the moment that the initiative's definition of genetic engineering makes sense.
This proposal is still ridiculous.
The key phrase for me is "may have been".
If this food you are selling may have been produced with genetically engineered ingredients, you must label.
Well, how do you KNOW? You know whether you genetically engineered anything, or whether you bought anything self-declared as genetically engineered. But if you're making processed food, how do you know whether the ingredients that went into the processed food were genetically engineered? In California, if this passes, they'd have to be labelled, but if your processing plant is outside California and your ingredients weren't purchased in California?
You can't know.
So the only thing you can do, legally, is label. You MUST label even if you're 95% sure that you have no genetically engineered ingredients, because you might, unless you can prove otherwise.
Which means the label is useless. I, as a consumer, can tell that something not labelled has no genetically engineered ingredients - but I can't tell if something which is labelled has any genetically engineered ingredients. Because anyone who might, anyone who doesn't know, anyone who isn't prepared to defend against a labelling lawsuit by proving that nothing that went into the production of his biscuit was genetically engineered, will label in order to cover his ass.
Except that a consumer can't even rely on the absence of a label to tell them whether or not the product has been genetically engineered.
There are exceptions, you see.
(a) any food consisting entirely of, or derived entirely from, an animal which has not been genetically engineered, regardless of whether such animal has been fed or injected with any genetically engineered food or any drug that has been produced through means of genetic engineerring.
OK, that animal hasn't been genetically engineered, but if i'm worried about genetically engineered food molecules getting into my bloodstream, shouldn't I be worried that my cow was fed genetically engineered corn?
(b) A raw agricultural commodity or food derived therefrom that has been grown, raised, or produced without the knowing and intentional use of genetically engineered seed or food.
This one sounds ridiculous, but it's actually reasonable. The problem is that you can't very well require someone to label something as genetically engineered when they didn't know it was genetically engineered - that woudl be manifestly unfair. It does create the absurdity that I have a right, according to the initiative's findings and declarations, to know whether what i'm buying was made via genetic engineering ... unless it was unknown to the producer.
Note, though, that this doesn't ameliorate the problem I had above. This clause says, if the farmer didn't know it was genetically engineered, then the corn syrup manufacturer doesn't have to label. But if the corn syrup manufacturer doesn't know if the farmer knows, then he still has to label to cover his own ass.
(c) any processed food that would be subject to [this law] solely because it includes one or more genetically engineered processing aids or enzymes.
wait, so if I use a genetically engineered enzyme to help transform corn syrup into high fructose corn syrup, that doesn't have to be labelled, but if i use genetically engineered corn to produce the corn syrup, it does? that seems fundamentally arbitrary to me.
(d) any alcoholic beverage
so genetically engineered wheat isn't ok in my wheat thins, but genetically engineered hops in my pilsner is just fine?
(e) Until July 1, 2010, any processesd food that would be subject to [this law] solely because it includes one or more genetically engineered ingredients, provided that (1) no single such ingredient accounts for more than one half of one percent of the total weight of such processed food, and (2) the processed food does not contain more than 10 such ingredients
ok, that's pretty reasonable. trace amounts of stuff is fine. although, again, the real problem with processed foods is that you don't know the status of your ingredients, so you'll just label anyway to cover yourself.
(f) food that an independent organization has determined has not been knowingly and intentionally produced from or comingled with genetically engineered seed or genetically engineered food, provided that such determination has been made pursuant to a sampling and testing procedure approved in regulations adopted by the department.
I have two beefs with this.
The "knowingly and intentionally" language implies that if they KNOW that it involves genetically engineered ingredients but they didn't INTEND for it to, they don't have to label. That strikes me as flying in the face of the entire purpose of the initiative.
I also want to know what constitutes an independent organization. They didn't define the term.
(g) Food that has been lawfully certified to be labelled, marketed, and offered for sale as 'organic' (under the relevant federal regulations).
I don't understand the point of this exception.
If it's not possible for a federally-certified organic food to be genetically modified, this exception is meaningless; the set of foods encompassed by the exception (organic genetically modified foods which don't have to be labelled because of the exception) is zero.
If it is possible for a federally-certified organic food to be genetically modified, then this exception is entirely inconsistent with the principle that the consumer has the right to know whether their food is genetically modified.
(h) food is not packaged for retail sale and that either (1) is a processed food prepared and intended for immediate human consumption or (2) is served, sold, or otherwise provided in any restaurant or other food facility that is primarily engaged in the sale of food prepared and intended for immediate human consumption.
If it's genetically modified and sold in a grocery store , it must be labelled. If it's genetically modified and sold in a restaurant, it doesn't have to be labelled. If it's genetically modified and sold in a bar, it must be labelled, unless it's alcohol.
(i) medical food
And if it's provided to patients in a hospital, then it doesn't need to be labelled either.
This measure is bizarre.
It will ensure that all sorts of stuff which isn't genetically engineered is labelled as genetically engineered, because it requires labelling if the food 'might' contain ingredients that are genetically engineered.
At the same time, it will allow stuff which is genetically engineered to not be labelled if, among other things, it's sold in a restaurant, fed to patients in a hospital, is certified as organic, is an alcoholic beverage, or if the genetic engineering was used to create a component in a chemical food transformation process.
So: how is the label meaningful? What will it tell me as a consumer?
One of my friends who was leaning towards voting for this was arguing that, well, it's a bad measure, but the legislature will never pass a labelling law of this sort at all, and maybe the best thing California can do is pass a bad measure and then let the legislature modify it to make it better.
There's something to that. The initiative system in California exists because the legislature won't always do things that are desired by large swathes of the people but not desired by the corporations who bankroll legislative campaigns, or which terrify courage-deprived legislators. Labelling of genetically engineered ingredients is one of those things that can probably only be done via initiative.
But the rules set forth in this proposition can only be modified by a 2/3 majority vote of both houses.
I don't think the California state legislature is capable of generating a 2/3 majority vote in favor of anything. Well, maybe rebuilding freeways after they're knocked down in an earthquake. But beyond that? I think the most likely outcome is that this bizarre law stays on the books indefinitely, despite the fact that the label will be rendered meaningless by the conjunction of arbitrary exceptions and expansive ass-covering.
If Californians believe, as this initiative proposes, that consumers have the right to know whether the foods they purchase were produced using genetic engineering, they should vote down Proposition 37 and wait for an initiative to come along which would actually inform them of that. This initiative won't.