Labeling of genetically engineered foods: Proposition language raises legal issues

November 2, 2012

(Medical Xpress)—California's ballot initiative that proposes to require labeling of genetically engineered foods raises important legal and policy issues that could take years to resolve through the courts and other means, University of California, Davis, School of Law researchers caution.

"While Proposition 37 generally captures the of the genetically engineered food labeling movement, it also contains several exemptions and ambiguities that have made it a controversial measure facing California voters," says Miles Hogan, an fellow for the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at the UC Davis School of Law. "If the initiative is enacted, those important questions will have to be resolved through regulators' interpretation or in the courts."

Hogan and other researchers compiled the report, "California's Proposition 37: A Legal & Policy Analysis," examining provisions in the initiative that not only ask voters to decide whether genetically engineered foods should be labeled by retailers, but also whether to ban such foods from being called "natural."

The proposition, on the ballot in next week's general election, also proposes to exempt many foods from labeling, including processed foods, foods served at restaurants and alcohol.

While not taking a position on the initiative, the report noted that the initiative's language will likely face litigation challenges over such issues as whether Proposition 37's labeling requirements and advertising restrictions constitute a violation of the First Amendment—regulating speech both by prohibiting and by compelling certain statements by the food sellers, especially the provision that prohibits "natural" claims.

Another likely legal challenge concerns whether Proposition 37, if enacted, could be pre-empted by federal law, which does not currently require any such labeling. The federal Food and Drug Administration has been petitioned by consumer groups to issue new regulations on genetically engineered foods.

"The result of the November election and the fate of Proposition 37 at the polls will likely have a profound impact on the future of genetically engineered food labeling both in California and in the United States as a whole," the report concludes, pointing out that California has been known to pass voter initiatives that are followed by other states.

"California has been a national leader in the use of the voter initiative process to adopt a wide array of innovative laws and policies—including those to protect the environment," observed Richard Frank, director of the UC Davis School of Law's California Environmental Law and Policy Center. "How those previous initiative measures have been interpreted by the courts and enforced by California policymakers is likely to influence strongly how Proposition 37 is implemented—if the voters approve it at the polls."

No state has yet passed any broad law governing food labeling either legislatively or through a voter initiative, although 19 states have tried to pass similar laws, according to the report. Alaska enacted a law on the mandatory of fish only, for example, and Connecticut regulates what can be labeled as "organic" or "natural."

California voters in 1986 took similar steps with Proposition 65, which was an attempt to protect residents from exposure to hazardous chemicals. Formally titled the "California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act," Proposition 65 has since been amended twice by the California Legislature, even though such amendments, as in Proposition 37, require a stringent two-thirds majority of each house of the California Legislature.

Explore further: US initiative will test appetite for GMO food

Related Stories

US initiative will test appetite for GMO food

October 6, 2012
(AP)—Calories. Nutrients. Serving size. How about "produced with genetic engineering?" California voters will soon decide whether to require certain raw and processed foods to carry such a label.

California to vote on GM food labeling

October 22, 2012
California could become the first US state to enforce labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods, in a vote next month pitting agro-chemical giants against opponents of so-called "Frankenfoods."

Petition demands US label genetically engineered food

October 5, 2011
Supporters and producers of organic foods petitioned the US government Tuesday for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods, and encouraged consumers to go online and join the cause.

Recommended for you

Amber-tinted glasses may provide relief for insomnia

December 15, 2017
How do you unwind before bedtime? If your answer involves Facebook and Netflix, you are actively reducing your chance of a good night's sleep. And you are not alone: 90 percent of Americans use light-emitting electronic devices, ...

Warning labels can help reduce soda consumption and obesity, new study suggests

December 15, 2017
Labels that warn people about the risks of drinking soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages can lower obesity and overweight prevalence, suggests a new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study.

Office work can be a pain in the neck

December 15, 2017
Neck pain is a common condition among office workers, but regular workplace exercises can prevent and reduce it, a University of Queensland study has found.

Regular takeaways linked to kids' heart disease and diabetes risk factors

December 14, 2017
Kids who regularly eat take-away meals may be boosting their risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, suggests research published online in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Simulation model finds Cure Violence program and targeted policing curb urban violence

December 14, 2017
When communities and police work together to deter urban violence, they can achieve better outcomes with fewer resources than when each works in isolation, a simulation model created by researchers at the UC Davis Violence ...

One in five patients report discrimination in health care

December 14, 2017
Almost one in five older patients with a chronic disease reported experiencing health care discrimination of one type or another in a large national survey that asked about their daily experiences of discrimination between ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.