Dan Walters: Prop. 37's labeling requirements are especially perplexing

dwalters@sacbee.comOctober 29, 2012 

This year's ballot contains a number of highly complex measures but none is as bewildering as Proposition 37, which purports to provide Californians with information about genetically modified foods.

Even a conscientious voter who reads the voter's pamphlet and follows news coverage can be confused by the welter of claims and counterclaims.

"Proposition 37 is a simple, common sense measure," proponents tell voters in the pamphlet. "It doesn't cost anything to include information on a label, and it's phased in, giving manufacturers time to print new labels telling you what's in the food, or change their products if they do not want to sell food produced using genetic engineering."

"Prop. 37 isn't a simple measure, like promoters claim," opponents counter. "It's a deceptive, deeply flawed food labeling scheme that would add more government bureaucracy and taxpayer costs, create new frivolous lawsuits, and increase food costs by billions – without providing any health or safety benefits. And, it's full of special- interest exemptions."

The Legislative Analyst's Office, which is charged with giving voters a plain- language summary of every ballot measure, does its best to explain what Proposition 37 would, and would not, do. But it's limited, because in reality no one knows how it would be implemented or what the ancillary consequences would be.

Elementally, it's a market battle between the organic food industry and traditional food producers and sellers. Those two factions have put up most of the campaign money, with the latter outspending the former perhaps six- or sevenfold.

But the downright weird wording of the measure, with myriad definitions and exemptions, appears to set legal traps, giving lawyers who specialize in class- action lawsuits a vast new territory to explore, much as occurred with Proposition 65, a 1980s-vintage measure requiring signs for products and locales with even the slightest connection to cancer.

Indeed, one of the drafters of Proposition 37 is a lawyer who was instrumental in Proposition 65, thus lending credence to arguments about its being legal quicksand.

The opponents also say that passage would trigger sharp increases in our food costs because California would be the only state with such a labeling requirement, thus requiring manufacturers to make California-only products, but that's speculation because no one knows whether they would change their products' content or just place new labels on them were it to pass.

The measure is sufficiently off-putting that almost every major news- paper in the state has urged rejection, some arguing that labeling, if warranted, should be done nationally rather than in a single state.

This is one measure that should give voters particular pause.

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