By Lisa Baertlein and Carey Gillam
Nov 5 Major food and seed companies appear to be
on the verge of defeating a California ballot initiative that,
if passed on Tuesday, would create the first labeling
requirement for genetically modified foods in the United States.
In a campaign reminiscent of this summer's successful fight
against a proposed tobacco tax in California, opposition funded
by Monsanto Co, DuPont, PepsiCo Inc and
others unleashed waves of TV and radio advertisements against
Proposition 37 and managed to turn the tide of public opinion.
Four weeks ago, the labeling initiative was supported by
more than two-thirds of Californians who said they intended to
vote on Nov. 6, according to a poll from the California Business
Roundtable and Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy.
On Tuesday, their latest poll showed support had plummeted to 39
percent, while opposition had surged to almost 51 percent.
The swing in sentiment in the final weeks was predicted by
pollsters, based on the power of a $46 million "No on 37"
campaign, one of the best-funded for a California ballot measure
fight. The ads claim the "badly written" initiative would
increase the average family's grocery bills by $400 annually and
hobble California farmers. Opponents also take aim at what they
call "special interest exemptions" for restaurant food and
products from animals fed with grain containing genetically
modified organisms, popularly known as GMOs.
Backers of the labeling initiative say consumers have the
right to know what is in the food they eat. They dispute
opponents' cost projections and say labeling would not be
burdensome to families or businesses.
They could still prevail on Tuesday if the polling turns out
to be wrong, or if a last minute push by grassroots supporters
Many processed foods sold in the United States are made at
least in part with corn, soybeans or other crops that have been
genetically modified - crossed with DNA from other species to do
things like make them resistant to insects or weed killer.
Each side accuses the other of resorting to desperate
measures to mislead voters and using science that falls short of
Such polarized debate is common in California, where ballot
measures play a big role in governing. But labeling proponents
say it also speaks to the research gap around GMOs, specifically
a lack of mandated government studies that would show whether
long-term consumption of GMOs causes health problems.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has determined labels
are not needed for GM crops that are "substantially equivalent"
to non-GM crops. The United States does not require labeling or
mandatory independent pre-market safety testing for GMOs. At
least three dozen countries require labeling and mandatory
pre-market safety testing, said Michael Hansen, senior scientist
from watchdog group Consumer Reports.
Some food and agriculture experts predict food companies
would remove genetically modified ingredients rather than label
them just for California - a move that would hit the
multi-billion genetically modified seed business, where Monsanto
and DuPont are market leaders.
Monsanto, the largest backer of the campaign with more than
$8 million in funding, and DuPont say Proposition 37 would
mislead consumers. PepsiCo referred reporters to the "No on 37"
TARGETING FLAWS IN INITIATIVE
Consumer advocates say the "No on 37" campaign has employed
many of the same tactics the tobacco industry used this summer
in California in a $47 million campaign that defeated
Proposition 29, which would have raised cigarette taxes by $1
per pack to fund cancer research and other health efforts.
Opponents of the tobacco tax overcame early support
approaching 70 percent by flooding airwaves with ads, including
one featuring a doctor in a white coat warning that tobacco tax
proceeds would not be spent on cancer treatment and could be
shipped out of state. Outgunned supporters said those claims
The food and tobacco industry campaigns both employed
messages that weren't "arguing with the premise of the
initiatives, but rather making picky criticisms of the details
of the initiatives," said anti-smoking activist Stanton Glantz,
a professor and researcher at the University of California-San
"No on 37" spokeswoman Kathy Fairbanks rejects the notion of
copycat tactics and said the similarities between the two
campaigns are limited to pointing out flaws in the initiatives
and spending significant money on ads.
Backers of Proposition 37, including thousands of individual
donors, organic food companies and natural health news provider
Joseph Mercola, have been outspent roughly six to one, according
to campaign reports filed with the California Secretary of
State. In their final push, they are trying to trumpet cases
where they say opponents have used misinformation to sway the
MISSTEPS ON BOTH SIDES
Both sides have made missteps.
Supporters of Proposition 37 got a boost when the Academy of
Nutrition and Dietetics said "No on 37" inaccurately stated in
the California official voter information guide that the academy
had concluded that GMOs were safe.
"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," its
president said in a statement in early October.
"No on 37" said it based its information on a policy
statement on the academy's website and that it was not aware the
position had expired in 2010.
The FDA also set the record straight on a "No on 37" mailer
that put the FDA's logo below a quote criticizing efforts like
the California labeling measure as "inherently misleading." The
use of the quote next to the logo made it appear that FDA had
weighed in on the fight.
FDA spokeswoman Morgan Liscinsky said the agency made no
such statement and had no position on the initiative. "Yes on
37" also asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the
allegedly fraudulent misuse of FDA's seal in that mailer -
something that won't be resolved until well after the election.
Then, just four days before the vote, supporters of
Proposition 37 fumbled the facts about the status of its DOJ
request, releasing a statement titled: "FBI opens investigation
into No on 37 shenanigans."
The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California
quickly responded: "Neither the FBI nor this office has a
pending investigation related to this matter."
"Yes on 37" said it issued its statement after a field agent
for the FBI called its attorney. It later revised its statement
to say that the U.S. Attorney's office had referred the matter
to the FDA, which like other federal agencies has its own
criminal investigations unit.