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Voters Reject California Proposal to Label GMO Foods After Bitter, Industry-Funded Campaign

A Yes on Prop 37 rally in Los Angeles. The bill to label GMO foods suffered from an industry-led campaign to defeat it. (Photo: cheeseslave / Flickr)

Voters rejected California’s Proposition 37, which would have made the state the first in the nation to require most groceries containing genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled as such.

With 90 percent of the votes tallied early Wednesday morning, Proposition 37 was down by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin, according to media reports.

The ballot initiative enjoyed substantial leads in the polls for months, until late September and October, when the No on 37 campaign, armed with $46 million in donations from agrochemical and processed-food companies, launched a deluge of radio and TV ads across the state.

Biotech and agrochemical giant Monsanto alone gave $8.1 million to defeat the measure, and DuPont gave $5.4 million. Pepsico, Kraft Foods, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta and the agrochemical firm BASF each gave at least $2 million.

The Yes on 37 campaign enjoyed a much smaller war chest worth about $9.2 million, largely from organics companies and alternative health groups. The campaign also enjoyed endorsements from watchdog and consumers groups such as the Center for Food Safety and the Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports.

The Yes on 37 campaign launched its own TV ad in the final weeks before the election to rally last-minute support, but the effort was too little, too late.

GMO Information War

The Proposition 37 debate reflected the divisive passion – and endless spin – of the global debate over genetically engineered foods, also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Opponents of the measure accused proponents of fearmongering and crafting a faulty proposition that would lead to costly lawsuits and increased costs for consumers and farmers, while proponents accused the industry-backed opposition of saturating California’s airwaves with “a massive campaign of deception and lies.”

Several newspapers questioned the accuracy of ads run by both sides, and one No on 37 TV ad was pulled after Stanford University complained that the ad wrongly suggested the institution had taken a side on the issue.

The ad featured Henry Miller, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, which is housed at Stanford. Miller’s resume includes arguing for the re-introduction of the pesticide DDT and working with a Philip Morris-backed front group to discredit the links between secondhand smoke and health problems. Miller routinely opposed mandatory safety testing of genetically engineered products when he served as founding director of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) biotechnology office from 1989 to 1994.

Voter Deception and Criminal Allegations

The campaign became increasingly ugly in its final days. Most recently, Yes on 37 accused the opposition of impersonating the Democratic Party and green groups after it disemminated mailers urging voters to reject Proposition 37 and featuring Democratic candidates and symbols.

Yes on 37 also filed a complaint in October with the Justice Department alleging the No on 37 campaign illegally used the FDA’s official seal on a mailer. The mailer made it appear as if the FDA opposed Proposition 37, but federal agencies are not allowed to take positions on voter initiatives.

Last Thursday, the Yes on 37 campaign claimed the FBI had launched an “investigation” into the No on 37 campaign after an FBI agent called a Yes on 37 attorney to follow up on the complaint over the FDA seal.

The Yes on 37 campaign changed its tune, however, after the US Attorney’s Office in California announced that officials had not yet decided whether to launch a formal criminal investigation into the use of the FDA seal. In statements to the press, the FDA did not confirm or deny whether it had launched its own investigation.

The Yes on 37 campaign also accused the opposition of misrepresenting the positions of health groups such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

The No on 37 campaign claimed these groups had concluded that GMOs are safe to eat, but watchdogs say that is false. The WHO, for example, has recognized that no definitive links between GMOs and health problems have been identified, but the group also calls for ongoing testing and says that the safety of GMOs must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

No on 37 also raised ire from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which issued a press release alerting voters that false statements about the academy’s position on GMO labeling were found in voter guides.

“We are concerned that California’s voters are being misled to believe the nation’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals is against Proposition 37, when in fact, the academy does not have a position on the issue,” said academy President Ethan A. Bergman.

The Yes on 37 campaign came under fire for touting a controversial French study which linked a Monsanto herbicide and GMO corn variety to tumors and premature death in lab rats.

European regulators and French food safety officials discredited the study, but the French authorities applauded the originality of the study, which is one of the only long-term studies on the health impacts of GMO corn, and called for more long-term studies to be done.

No long-term human studies on GMO safety have been conducted, and the FDA does not require safety assessments of genetically engineered foods or run its own independent safety tests.

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