PCC Natural Markets this month joined the charge to put genetically-modified food labeling on the 2013 ballot, but it's unclear whether such a measure will be necessary after the projected passage of California's Prop 37.
A recent poll by the Los Angeles Times/USC Dornsife found supporters of the mandatory GMO labeling law outnumbered opponents 2 to 1 statewide, despite a huge influx of cash from agribusiness giants including Monsanto, DuPont and Dow AgroSciences. Although the law would apply only to food sold in California, experts say the state's standing as the world's eighth largest economy makes it difficult for producers to segregate their California-bound stock. That means many major companies may opt to reformulate their products, rather than create a dedicated California supply chain.
Backers of the proposition say producers are unlikely to "label their products as genetically engineered when sold in California, but not when sold in other states. Doing so would be a costly PR disaster." Nor are companies likely to want to release GMO labels in states where legislation doesn't require it, so ridding their products of GMOs could be an attractive strategy - despite the ubiquity of GMOs in U.S. soybeans and corn.
"We really don't know how the big food companies will react if they lose this fight," Food Safety News' Helena Bottemiller says. "I think that's why all eyes are on California right now."
Trudy Bialic, PCC's director of public affairs, says California's law requiring the labeling of goods containing carcinogens and hormone inhibitors provides a useful precedent.
"Consider that California's Prop 65 passed 25 years ago (1986) and still it's just California that has such labeling on foods," Bialic says. "No other state has labeling on such high risk 'foods.' We will need more than just California to get nationwide labeling."
As reported earlier this week by the Seattle Times, PCC is donating $100,000 to the I-522 signature drive. The initiative, launched by a vegan couple from Tacoma, needs 320,000 signatures to qualify for a vote.
"Since the Food and Drug Administration says we must know if our orange juice is fresh or from concentrate, doesn't it make sense that foods engineered with foreign bacteria, viruses, insect, plant or animal genes should be labeled, too?," Bialic writes in the grocery's latest newsletter.
But I-522 is opposed by the Northwest Food Processors Association, which claims the expense associated with compliance could prove crippling for business. Michael Steel, a San Francisco attorney whose client list includes food retailers, says Washington producers of all sizes will have to deal with the financial consequences of Prop 37 if it passes.
Prop 37 doesn't apply to meat, cheese or alcohol, so the state's distilleries and wine makers wouldn't be affected by its provisions. But bakeries which use sugar made from genetically-modified sugar beets or sauce producers who use corn syrup made from genetically-modified corn "have to worry about labels," Steel says.
And Washington's producers who avoid GMO ingredients aren't in the clear: They'll have to provide paperwork every three years showing their foods are GMO-free. Furthermore, the burden is on producers to prove they're exempt from the labeling requirement. And since anyone is allowed to bring a lawsuit against a producer, opponents of Prop 37 argue the law could result in frivolous and costly claims against small businesses.
"The bigger, more sophisticated plaintiffs go against bigger money," Steel says. "But there's a group of lawyers who file hundreds of ADA lawsuits: They go around to convenience stores, and if the mirror is an inch off, they say 'you can settle with me for $10,000.' You get these shakedown lawsuits."
Finally, the proposed law's provisions bar the use of the word "natural," on any food which has undergone dehydrating, pressing, smoking or other processing. So if a Washington-made trail mix includes prunes, it would no longer be "natural" in California.
"This is not a California story," food policy writer Barry Estabrook last month told Association of Food Journalists members. "This is a national story."