Prop 37 Triggers Food Fight

What is the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s number one priority this election year?

No, it’s not the election of Romney/Ryan. It’s the defeat of Prop 37 in California.

Prop 37 is a ballot initiative that would require clear labels letting consumers know if foods are genetically modified.

A recent Pepperdine University poll shows that if the election were held today, Californians would vote Prop 37 into law by a three to one margin – 66 to 21.

But, alas, the election will be held in November. And the No on Prop 37 campaign, fueled by $25 million in food industry donations, has yet to run one television ad.

And the history of these ballot initiatives is that once the corporate ads start to run, the polls will narrow.

So, it promises to be a close election in California – at least on Prop 37.

To gain some insight into the battle, we called on Gary Ruskin.

Ruskin is the campaign manager for the California Right to Know Campaign for Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food.

Ruskin understands that the No on 37 forces are going to outspend the Yes on 37 forces – by a factor of anywhere from five to ten to one.

As of now, the No forces have raised $25 million and the Yes forces have raised $3.4 million.

Ruskin says that the big six pesticide firms – Monsanto, Dow, BASF, Bayer, Syngenta, DuPont – have given $13.5 million of the $25 million.

“Much of this comes down to the big six pesticide companies wanting to sell more pesticides and wanting to keep their pesticide treadmill going,” Ruskin told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “The rest of the money has been given by big food companies like Pepsi, Nestle, Coca Cola, Cargill, Kellogg, Hershey’s, Ocean Spray, Hormel.”

“Monsanto has given $4.2 million. DuPont has given $4 million. Pepsico $1.7 million. BASF $1.6 million. Bayer $1.6 million. Dow $1.2 million. Nestle $1.2 million.”

On the Yes, side, Mercola – the largest health web site in the country – has donated $1.1 million, Nature’s Path $600,000 – and “thousands of citizens across the country who want the labeling of genetically engineered foods – those are nearly all small donors, typically in the $50 range,” Ruskin said.

Ruskin is banking on grassroots power to overcome the money of the big boys.

“We are going to have so many volunteers on the street, and they are so highly motivated, we think that is going to carry the day for us,” Ruskin said. “More than anyone else, our volunteer base is mothers and grandmothers who care about what is in their food, want to know what is in their food, and care about feeding their families the best food possible.”

“We have seen a tremendous uptick of support over the last few days as the media starts to cover this heavily. It’s bringing us volunteers and contributions. And we think that as the media attention intensifies, it’s only going to drive more support to us. People will understand that this is a fight between people who care about what is in their food versus Monsanto, DuPont and Dow.”

“Our polling shows that the opposition doesn’t have any arguments that are persuasive. We argue people have the right to know what is in their food. What are they going to say – people don’t have the right to know? They don’t have a response.”

“Without a response, their messaging probably isn’t going to work that well.”

The No side says Prop 37 “is full of absurd, politically motivated exemptions that make no sense.”

“It requires special labels on soy milk, but exempts cow’s milk,” the No side proclaims on their web site. “Dairy products, eggs, meat and poultry are all exempt. Fruit juice requires a label, but alcohol made with some of the same GE ingredients is exempt. Food sold in a grocery store requires a label, but the same food sold in a restaurant is exempt.”

“Food imported from China and other foreign countries are exempt if sellers simply claim their products are ‘GE free’. Unscrupulous foreign companies can game the system.”

“It is true in part,” Ruskin says. “Animal products, where the animals have themselves not been genetically engineered, but some of the food that they eat has been genetically engineered – those are exempt.”

“The reason is that we tried to write this initiative so that it imposes the least regulatory burden on restaurants, food producers and food processors.”

If a cow is eating GMO corn, the meat of the cow does not have to be identified as a GMO product?

“That’s correct, unless the animal itself has been genetically engineered,” Ruskin says. “So, the FDA is about to approve a genetically engineered salmon, called AquaBounty salmon. That is an example of an animal product that would have to be labeled.”

No on Prop 37 says that alcohol products are exempt.

“Alcoholic beverages are exempt from our ballot initiative,” Ruskin says.


“This was just a judgment,” he says. “We are trying to cover the largest amount of products with the minimum amount of regulatory burden.”

They say that food sold in a grocery store requires a label, but the same food sold in a restaurant is exempt.

“That’s correct,” Ruskin says. “Restaurants are changing their sourcing all of the time, so it is harder for them to label.”

Food imported from China and other foreign companies are exempt, if sellers simply claim their products are “GE free.” They say that unscrupulous foreign companies can game the system.

“That is true in part,” Ruskin says. “But if a company is caught lying, then somebody can bring a citizen suit and require them to come into compliance.”

“It’s just a labeling law. So, if any company is not in compliance with the law, a foreign or a domestic company can be sued and forced into compliance.”

[For the complete transcript of the Interview with Gary Ruskin, 26 Corporate Crime Reporter 34, September 3, 2012, print edition only.]

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