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Protesters demonstrate against the production of genetically modified food in front of a Monsanto facility in Davis, Calif., in March. The local protest was not specifically about labeling. (MCT /Landov)

California's Genetically Engineered Food Label May Confuse More Than Inform

by Eliza Barclay
May 14, 2012

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Eliza Barclay

When Californians go to the polls in November, they will very likely have the chance to make California the first state in the nation to require labeling of genetically engineered food. That's according to California Right to Know, which filed a petition to force a statewide vote.

And the group is pretty confident it will succeed. "Polls show that nine out of ten California voters agree that they want labeling," Stacy Malkan, spokeswoman for the group, tells The Salt.

But a new analysis of the labeling initiative suggests that if it passes, it would create a complex mandate for food companies that may make it harder — not easier — for consumers to figure out what's really in their food. That's because the initiative muddies the definition of a "natural" food.

The word "natural" on a food label is already pretty controversial. It's more of a marketing tool than anything else — seducing consumers into thinking it means healthier, or nearly organic, although it may simply mean minimally-processed and free from artificial ingredients. The federal government has so far declined to make the term clearer, which has led to many processed foods using the "natural" label.

The activists behind the labeling initiative say they want California consumers to know what they're eating. So they're calling for any processed food or raw agricultural commodity (like corn) that has been or may have been partially or wholly produced with genetic engineering to be labeled as such. And they want to prevent processed foods with GE ingredients from using the "natural" label, too.

But Peggy Lemaux, a cooperative extension specialist at the University of California, Berkeley who manages an informational website on biotechnology, says her analysis of the document concluded that "natural" — as the Right To Know group wants it — could be interpreted two different ways.

One way is that processed foods could be labeled "natural" only if they are free of GE ingredients. But Lemaux says the initiative could also be interpreted as saying that no processed food can be labeled "natural", whether or not it is GE or contains GE ingredients.

However, Malkan, of Right to Know, says the initiative merely intended to keep food with GE ingredients from being called "natural." "The language is clear that non-GE processed foods could still be labeled 'natural,'" says Malkan.

Activists have been calling for labeling of GE food for many years, but recent petition drives and polls suggest support for labeling is greater than it has ever been. As we reported in March, a coalition calling itself Just Label It commissioned a survey from a national pollster, which found that 91 percent of voters favor labeling.

Some 40 countries around the world now require labels for GM foods. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has maintained a firm stance since 2009 that GM labeling is unnecessary. The agency says genetically modified food is essentially the same as other food and poses no safety risk.

Lemaux, who has done extensive reviews of the scientific literature on GE foods, agrees with the FDA.

"This [labeling measure] is not going offer any additional safety to people; it's really not a food safety issue because there's no real evidence this stuff is unsafe," says Lemaux.

What's more she says, the GE and natural labels may scare less savvy consumers away from affordable, healthful foods. And, as we've reported before, Americans really don't understand what genetically engineered food is all about.

"If you're looking to know what's in your food, well there's a lot of stuff in your food, and there's already a lot of stuff on the label," says Lemaux. "And a lot of people already don't read the label."

UPDATED EDITOR'S NOTE 5:00 pm, Wednesday:

Peggy Lemaux initially told NPR she thought that the passage of the labeling initiative would mean that no processed food could be labeled "natural" unless it was a processed organic food. She later revised her analysis. In her second take, she concluded that the section on labeling "natural" could be interpreted different ways, and that the interpretation will ultimately be decided in the courts.

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