Three Things I Learned When I Started Researching Proposition 37
No one knows for sure how much labeling will cost consumers, food companies, and the state of California, but there's no evidence that the cost will be significant.
Many of the No on 37 advertisements have claimed that the proposition will cost the average family $400 more per year, though that number comes from a campaign-produced study by Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants, which is based on the questionable premise that all food producers will switch to organic instead of GMO seeds in order to avoid the labeling. Another study cited by Yes on 37 says there will be little to no cost to the consumer for food producers to change their labeling. The Yes on 37 campaign also cites the former European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection of the European Parliament David Byrne's assertion that no such costs were incurred when the EU passed this requirement.
The main argument of the No on 37 campaign, however, is that the potential for lawsuits over the initiative could be significant. "[Proposition 37] sets up a situation ripe for abuse and we feel like that's exactly what will happen. The main problem with Prop 37 is that it invites lawsuits ... It enables lawyers to file lawsuits with no proof and no damages," says Kathy Fairbanks, a spokesperson for the No on 37 campaign. The proposition is often compared to the controversial Prop 65, a warning label for more than 800 chemicals which created incentives to file lawsuits by allowing plaintiffs to collect 25 percent of the awarded civil penalties. The fear is that unscrupulous attorneys will be able to sue small business owners, food suppliers, farmers, and others over not complying with labeling requirements, even if there is no evidence to support their claim. This lawsuit potential is one of the main reasons newspapers like the LA Times and San Francisco Chronicle have come out against the proposition.
Supporters point out that Prop 37 is written specifically to avoid these "bounty hunter" lawsuits, though. Food producers are responsible for package labeling, not markets. Retailers will be responsible for labeling the small amount of non-canned GM produce if they have it on their shelves, mostly sweet corn and papaya; beyond that, all a retailer needs to show to defend themselves from a lawsuit is an affidavit from their supplier that states that the food wasn't intentionally produced with food grown from GM seed. Furthermore, class action lawsuits require a 30-day notice period to give manufactures and retailers a chance to correct their labeling, and any penalties resulting from non-compliance go to the state, not the individual.
"In Prop 37 there are no financial incentives [to file lawsuits], so if an individual says they think tortilla chips are mislabeled, they can sue the manufacturer," says Spector, who points out that individuals can already sue companies over mislabeled packaging under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act. "If the company's in compliance, they can submit an affidavit ... and the lawsuit is over. Its a pretty simple mechanism, and we do believe that companies will follow the law," she says.
The California legislative analyst's office says that administrative costs to the state could range from a few hundred dollars to more than $1 million annually, depending on how the Department of Public Health chooses to implement the regulations. To many on the No campaign, that's too much money for the already economically struggling California. "Our state is broke and we are imposing additional costs on state taxpayers when we don't have any money for the public schools," says Fairbanks.
It's true: Proposition 37 will cost the state some money. It will require food producers to change their packaging within 18 months if their products contain food made from GM crops (though companies often redo their packaging within that time-span anyway). But Prop 37 will also allow for more transparency to let consumers make their own choices about the food they eat, and potentially set a precedence for more visibility into the food system ... and to many, including myself, the benefits outweigh the costs.