The “Empire Strikes Back” Against California’s GMO InitiativeJuly 3, 2012
Charges are flying. Here are some facts.
As we have reported many times, GMO foods are not safe. Remember those rats fed GMO corn whose offspring were fine but whose grandchildren were sterile? Is this uncontrolled experiment on human beings a good idea?
The California Right to Know 2012 Ballot Initiative, if enacted in November, would require GMO food—that is, all food containing genetically engineered ingredients—to be so labeled in the state. Consumers all over the US are in favor of this by wide margins. It is very important because, with the full power of the US government behind GMO, and huge amounts of money flowing back to Washington from GMO producers, the only way to stop the GMO juggernaut is to tell consumers what they are buying.
The usual suspects are mounting a huge disinformation campaign against the initiative. A leading coalition is StopCostlyFoodLabeling.com, the funding for which comes in part from the Council for Biotechnology Information—whose members include Monsanto, Dow, and other GMO companies.
Peggy Lemaux, an extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science at UC Berkeley, was recently quoted in a National Public Radio piece as opposing the initiative. She has credentials, but keep in mind that she’s a member of an agricultural science council that includes all the major biotech companies, and was recently the recipient of a financial award provided by Monsanto.
One of the chief charges against the initiative at the moment is that it will be used by bounty-hunting trial lawyers to file abusive lawsuits against food companies, including natural food companies, arguing that they are selling foods or supplements that contain undisclosed GMOs. This charge is designed to cause division within the natural health and natural foods community by frightening off companies that might normally support the initiative.
Is there any truth to their allegation? Will “Label GMO,” if passed, turn into a rich source of income for racketeering—legal bucket shops and bounty-hunting lawyers? In short, no. This is not a valid charge.
Currently there are many abusive lawsuits going on in California, many of them associated with an earlier initiative passed in 1986 called Proposition 65 (formally titled “The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986”). This poorly designed and poorly written law too often allows lawyers to make false charges against businesses—particularly supplement companies—for not adequately warning consumers about trace amounts of heavy metals or other chemicals in their products. It also allows plaintiffs to keep a “bounty” of 25% of whatever civil penalties are collected.
The vague rules governing the law and the bounty seem to encourage some lawyers to try to make a fast buck by shaking down companies for a settlement prior to going to court. This is possible because, among other problems, Prop 65 has defined allowable levels of these contaminants for only about 300 of the over 800 different chemical elements covered by the law. Not only are some of those defined limits unrealistically low, but undefined limits mean that any trace may be considered toxic and actionable.
This is not good science. Metals and other such elements naturally occur in food; the more natural the product, the more likely that it will contain what might mistakenly be taken for a contaminant. Our bodies are designed to remove elements such as lead every day so long as we are not being flooded with them. It is bad enough for a company to be expected to test for over 800 different elements and compounds, but to do so with defined standards on only 300 of them is indefensible.
Label GMO, the current initiative, is not at all like Prop 65. The differences have been carefully delineated in a paper by James C. Cooper, PhD in economics from Emory University and JD magna cum laude from George Mason School of Law, where he is currently an adjunct law professor. Among the important points Cooper makes:
- Label GMO provides seven years in which producers can gradually reduce the GMO exposure of their products from no more than 5% to zero.
- So long as food or supplement producers have a statement from their supplier stating that to the supplier’s best belief there are no GMO elements, the producer is immune from suit.
- The same is true if the food is certified organic and certified GMO-free by an independent organization, or falls into some other categories—the producer is immune from GMO labeling liability. No doubt it will make sense for some food producers to help create an independent certifier.
- Once a violation has been identified, the producer also has 30 days in which to correct it, in which case there is no liability.
- There is no “bounty” for plaintiffs who initiate lawsuits.
Professor Cooper is not an activist supporting the Label GMO Initiative. He is a respected scholar pointing out that Label GMO should not be crudely tarnished with Prop 65’s failings. Indeed, Label GMO was drafted with Prop 65’s failings in mind. Although both involve labeling and both allows lawsuits, they are otherwise very different laws.
The opponents of the Label GMO initiative—led and financed, we can expect, by GMO producers working as surreptitiously as possible—will do whatever they can to defeat it. They know the initiative is currently popular with consumers and voters. Consumers naturally want to know what is GMO food and what is not, and feel, rightly, that they have a right to know. The GMO producers can be expected to use scare tactics and to try to enlist natural food companies on their side, or at least blunt their support for the initiative, by using any charge they think will stick. Our job is to give you, and California voters in particular, the facts, pure and simple. Please read Dr. Cooper’s full report for all the facts about why Label GMO is not “another Prop 65.”
And stay tuned. This is just one battle in what will be a long, drawn out, expensive conflict.