Back when Prop 37 was voted down by California residents in 2012, it felt like a missed opportunity. Here was California, long known as one of the trendsetting states in the U.S., knocking on the door of instituting the first mandatory GMO food label. Not only would label legislation inevitably spread throughout the rest of the country, but we'd be able to take pride in knowing we gave the movement its first big push.
But once it was defeated, it seemed as though California would have sit back and watch some other state break through first. Washington's try was a no-go, but Oregon was next in line to give it a whirl. And who's to say one of the bastions of progressivism in the northeast wouldn't get there first? California had its chance, and we blew it.
At least, that was the feeling until last week. GMO labeling in California may be closer than we all thought.
Last week, Representative Noreen Evans of Santa Rosa introduced California Senate Bill 1381, known as the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act to her fellow congressional members in Sacramento. If passed, California will become the first state to require GMO labeling.
This bill's being touted as a "cleaner, simpler" version of Prop 37, which is an important selling point this time around. Back in 2012, it was easy to predict which side the voters were going to fall on regarding Prop 37 simply by looking at the passion of both sides. On the "No" side were people vehemently describing a future where small farmers were forced into bankruptcy and large farms passed along the cost to consumers by raising their prices. The "Yes" side was more skittish, the general feeling being that while it wasn't the greatest law, it was a step in the right direction.
But this version makes subtle changes to the original construct of Prop 37 in three very important ways:
1. "Natural" Is No Longer A Point of Contention
One element of Prop 37 was the fact that foods containing GMOs were not allowed to have the word "natural" on the label. Inherently, this makes sense, as foods that have their DNA messed with probably shouldn't be considered "natural." But that drew the ire of the National Product Association -- a group that heartily supports the labeling movement -- who withdrew their support. For voters, not getting a thumbs up from a group that should be a slam-dunk supporter is a telltale sign that something isn't quite right. This time around, that language has been removed.
2. Liability Protection for Retailers
Another big uproar from Prop 37 was the possibility that retailers may be held responsible if they were selling food that had been mislabeled. This scared a large enough percentage of retailers, who spread the word by willingly plastering signs in their windows calling for a "No" vote. This time around, however, the bill offers liability protection for retailers who don't know the food they're selling is mislabeled. In the same way, farmers who are not also retailers or manufacturers are not liable. As Evans puts it:
"It really puts the onus on the manufacturer of a processed food if it's not labeled properly.
In other words, it punishes those who should be punished.
3. Limited Lawsuits
One of the criticisms of Prop 37 was that a "cottage industry" of lawsuits would be created in the wake of its passage, with every lawyer in the state trying to push suits against every farmer, manufacturer, and retailer in California. But this time around, while private citizens are still granted the right to bring about a lawsuit, they can only be awarded money that accounts for "reasonable attorneys' fees and costs," and not substantial monetary damages on top of that. This should theoretically keep lawsuits low, as there won't be enough money to make constant lawsuits worthwhile.
Overall, the bill may make too much sense not to get passed. As it states in Section 1, part P:
The people of California should have the choice to avoid purchasing foods produced in ways that can lead to environmental harm.
Indeed. Couldn't have said it better myself.
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