On Election Day, Minnesota’s giant food industry — from General Mills and Cargill to family farmers — will be watching a California referendum as closely as the presidential race. So will consumers wary of food derived from genetically engineered ingredients.
Californians will vote on Proposition 37, which would force food manufacturers to label products containing genetically engineered ingredients for the first time in the United States. The effect would be sweeping.
The majority of packaged food in U.S. supermarkets is derived from genetically engineered (GE) crops, from corn to canola. California is a huge market, and consumer laws that originate there tend to spread. Meanwhile, Minnesota is a food industry hub and a bastion for GE crops, which cut farmers’ costs.
The food industry says labeling would be costly, and that GE technology is supported by ample science and the blessing of regulators and health authorities. A label denoting GE ingredients would needlessly scare consumers, they say.
“It sort of implies the product is bad for you when there is no basis for that,” said Reid MacDonald, CEO of Faribault Foods, a Minnesota bean and vegetable canner. “What people see is a sort of skull and crossbones.”
But Proposition 37’s proponents counter that the measure, which would take effect in 2014, is necessary because the long-term health implications of GE crops are unknown. Consumers have a right to know now if GE ingredients are in their food.
The United States has taken a “trust-the-companies” approach to GE-derived food, said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, a Proposition 37 backer. Labels are needed “so consumers can make a decision on whether they want to be guinea pigs in this experiment.”