Warning: Label Fatigue

Debra J. Saunders

6/2/2013 12:01:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
Sen. Barbara Boxer says she is co-sponsoring the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act in part because, with 26 states trying to pass legislation requiring said labeling, it makes more sense to have a uniform federal law. California's junior Democratic senator has a point. It's probably better for the folks who keep affordable food on American tables to have one big gun pointed at their collective head than 26 guns.

Except that most of these guns aren't loaded, including the big gun. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced a farm bill provision, which was designed to protect states that require labeling for genetically engineered food or genetically modified organisms from lawsuits from big food and big chemical. The Senate voted on it last week. And it tanked, 71-27.

Sanders argued that "an overwhelming majority of Americans favor GMO labeling." I don't think so, not when health-conscious Californians rejected, if narrowly, Proposition 37, a GMO labeling ballot measure, last year. Boxer now stands as the rare senator who wants to make the Food and Drug Administration require labeling that her own voters rejected.

The pro-label lobby credits the industry's spending $44 million to defeat the measure. But money isn't everything in California politics. Just ask Gov. Meg Whitman.

I think Californians rejected the measure because they're sick of living in a State of Too Much Information. Since voters approved Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, Californians have been bombarded with warning signs for 774 different chemicals. There are signs in hotels, in cars, at the gas station, all over supermarkets.

"It's like highlighting everything in a textbook," said Ken DeVore, California legislative director of the National Federation of Independent Business. "Nothing's highlighted when everything's highlighted."

For Boxer's part, she started with no co-sponsors. The Hill reports she now has more than 30 co-sponsors in the House and Senate. The FDA is considering approval for genetically modified salmon eggs for human consumption -- and that has delivered the support of two Alaska Republicans.

Though the overwhelming vote against the Sanders measure foreshadows defeat for Boxer's bill this year, she cannot lose for losing. Her argument sounds reasonable. As she noted in a press release, "Americans have the right to know what is in the food they eat so they can make the best choices for their families." Her bill wouldn't make packagers put a skull and crossbones on the label, she says -- just more information.

The problem is that Boxer's push to mandate labels for all GMO foods, unless they are exempted, is a recipe for information overload. "We see calls for mandatory labeling as a means to misinform consumers," countered Cathleen Enright, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, "at the least to misinform, at the most to scare" consumers by suggesting that modified foods are "unsafe or different."

To the contrary, modified is the norm. Humans have been modifying plants for millenniums. About 70 to 80 percent of processed foods are made with genetically engineered ingredients.

If the measure ever did become law, it would be a bonanza for lobbyists and lawmakers as industry groups bow and scrape before federal dignitaries to win exemptions for their goods. Boxer's bill, the San Francisco Chronicle's Stacy Finz reported, would exempt meat and dairy that is, though not modified, fed engineered grain. Proposition 37 would have exempted alcohol; Boxer's bill would not. Imagine the scramble to win indulgences for restaurant meals, dairy and drink.

If the public really has a right to know, there should be a warning label on all such measures that reads, simply: Shakedown.