GMO: The Secret the Food Industry Is Spending Millions to Keep

Big Agriculture and food companies are shelling out gobs of cash ahead of November's election to convince Californians to vote against a proposed law that would require businesses to label products that contain genetically modified organisms.

Proponents of Proposition 37 applaud the strict labeling requirements and say it will help consumers make better purchasing decisions. Opponents say that the labels are misleading and overly burdensome to food producers. Not only that, they claim, but compliance would be costly -- an expense that would likely drive up the price of goods in the grocery store.

The money is behind the opposition, literally.

Prop 37's opponents include Monsanto (MON), PepsiCo (PEP), Coca-Cola (KO), Hershey (HSY), and Kellogg (K). Together these companies and other large agricultural concerns have already spent millions to fight the proposed labeling law.

Labeling Purity

If Proposition 37 becomes law, raw GMO produce would be required to carry a label stating that it is "genetically engineered," and all processed foods containing GMOs would be required to be labeled as "partially produced with genetic engineering," or "may be partially produced with genetic engineering." It will also prohibit the use of labels such as "natural," "naturally made," "naturally grown," and "all natural" in foods with GMO ingredients.

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In addition, Prop 37 would require farmers to maintain traceability records on foods that lack labels alerting consumers to the possible presence of GMOs. But suppose a GMO seed gets into a non-GMO field -- which does happen. Under Prop 37, it will be illegal to have even trace amounts of GMOs in packaged food that isn't labeled as containing them, even accidentally. Contrast this with the European Union, which has a 0.9% threshold for unintended GMOs.

Prop 37 would also make it easier for consumers to win lawsuits against food producers by eliminating the requirement to show specific damages resulting from the labeling violation.

Finally, organic foods are exempt from Prop 37's labeling requirement, despite the possibility that they can also contain unintended traces of GMO ingredients.

What's So Bad About That?

Opponents claim that Prop 37's labeling requirements would mislead consumers by falsely implying that GMOs are harmful to human health, despite the fact that the Food and Drug Administration, the National Academy of Sciences, and the World Health Organization have concluded GMOs pose no risks to human health.

Some claim that Prop 37's zero-tolerance threshold for accidental GMOs, combined with the low burden of proof for consumers to win lawsuits for the mislabeling of food, will actually undermine the ability of consumers to avoid GMOs. This camp argues that, because it is nearly impossible to comply with such a high standard, food companies will simply label everything as containing GMOs in order to lower litigation risk. They also claim that this law privileges organic foods, which are exempt from the labeling requirement despite the fact that they can also contain trace amounts of accidental GMOs.

But it's not just about labels; it's about setting a precedent.

Opponents aren't just worried that the law will drive California consumers away from their products. They also fear that the rest of the country will follow California's lead and give the anti-GMO movement traction in other states.

Do you think Prop 37's requirements are good for consumers? Do you want the movement to spread to your home state? Chime in below!

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Motley Fool contributor M. Joy Hayes, Ph.D., is the principal at ethics consulting firm Courageous Ethics. She doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned. Follow @JoyofEthics on Twitter. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, as well as creating a modified stock repair against synthetic long position in Monsanto.

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