A campaign to make California the first state to require labeling of genetically modified foods has raised $2.3 million in donations, compared with $2 million collected by opponents, state records show.
Mercola.com LLC, a closely held distributor of vitamins and nutrition products based in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, donated $800,000 to back the November ballot initiative as of July 27, according to data posted on the Secretary of State’s website. Major contributors to the campaign against the measure include PepsiCo Inc., the world’s largest snack-food maker, Nestle SA’s Nestle USA and Coca-Cola Co., records show.
California voters were among the first to ban junk food from schools and trans-fats from restaurants. Proponents, financed by Mercola and several organic farms, are focusing their effort on the most-populous state after the failure of similar legislation in 19 states and the rejection of a petition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in April.
“People want to know whether their food contains genetically engineered ingredients,” Stacy Malkan, a spokeswoman for the Oakland-based California Right to Know campaign, said by telephone. “This type of labeling is standard procedure in much of the industrialized world.”
Proposition 37 would require manufacturers to label as “genetically engineered” food sold in retail outlets and made from plants or animals with specific changes in their genetic material. Such foods couldn’t be labeled “natural.” Certified organic foods and prepared foods at restaurants would be exempted.
Opponents contend that mandatory labeling would raise the price of food and encourage litigation.
“The motivation for this measure is more about lawsuits than about people’s health and safety,” said Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for Stop Costly Food Labeling. “Setting up a California-only distribution system for foods is also costly.”
PepsiCo spokesman Jeff Dahncke referred an e-mailed inquiry to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food makers. Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the Washington-based trade group, said the FDA has “exhaustively” studied foods and beverages containing genetically engineered ingredients and found no health hazards.
Messages left with the U.S. media relations offices of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, the world’s largest soft-drink maker, and Nestle, the world’s largest food manufacturer, based in Vevey, Switzerland, weren’t returned yesterday.
California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, in an analysis of the measure in January, concluded that it could cost as much as $1 million a year to administer, in addition to “unknown, but potentially significant” costs associated with litigation.
Modified foods have been on U.S. grocery shelves since 1994. Ninety-three percent of those responding to a nationally representative poll by Thomson Reuters Corp. in 2010 said genetically engineered foods should be labeled.
The trend in food labeling is toward more disclosure, said Mike Owen, an agronomy professor in Ames, Iowa, at Iowa State University, in a telephone interview.
Passage of the California measure would raise the stakes across the U.S, he said.
“It would be a watershed nationally and would set a precedent,” Owen said. “If we do that, there could be an added expense to the consumer for the cost of making that disclosure.”
Malkan disputed assertions of additional costs. Manufacturers would have 18 months to phase-in the new labels, during which most update their product labeling anyway, she said.
Mercola.com is headed by Joseph Mercola, a suburban Chicago osteopath who has warned in videos posted on YouTube of the dangers of genetically modified foods. A Mercola spokesman, Brian Barth, didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment yesterday.
“This isn’t just about California,” Mercola said in one video. “This is an authentic grassroots efforts to get genetically engineered foods labeled everywhere in the U.S.”