RPT-California GMO measure may fail after food industry fights back

Reuters Middle East

Nov 5 (Reuters) - 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

takes root.

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

rigorous standards.

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"

campaign.

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

were false.

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

Francisco.

"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

public.

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.

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