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California Newspaper Editorial Boards Spread False Claims and Faulty Logic on Proposition 37

October 17th, 2012
By Michele Simon, JD, MPH, Food Policy Consultant with the Center for Food Safety
Center for Food Safety

Each election season, proponents and opponents of the various initiatives on the California ballot hope for the state’s major newspaper endorsements. While you can’t expect every paper to endorse your side, Proposition 37, which would require labeling of foods produced using genetic engineering, seems to have had a string of incredibly bad luck. So incredible, in fact, that the reasoning behind several California newspaper endorsements of a No vote has me scratching my head.

It’s one thing to have a difference of opinion, but these editorials don’t even get their facts straight. Even more perplexing, most of the papers acknowledged that we should have labeling for foods produced using genetic engineering, and yet they went out of their way to find excuses to not endorse a basic consumer “right to know” effort. In this light, it seemed logical to review a few of the arguments that raised questions.

The Sacramento Bee editorial board, after saying they “don't oppose labeling of genetically modified food,” went on to parrot several of the opposition’s talking points, but failed to back them up with any actual facts. They claim the initiative would result in “countless lawsuits against retailers,” a baseless scare tactic well-honed by the opposition. The vast majority of businesses follow the law, so lawsuits will be rare.

Much has been made by the Bee and other papers about how “private attorneys and plaintiffs would have the power to enforce,” demonstrating a troubling ignorance of the law. Under current California law, private attorneys can already sue food companies for deceptive marketing, so this is really no different. And unlike other laws (such as Prop 65), under Prop 37 there are no financial incentives for bringing a lawsuit. All a person can get is a court order for the company to properly label its product, which is no incentive for an attorney to bring a lawsuit. Again, it’s just scare mongering from the opposition, and it’s sad to see the editorial pages engage in such shallow analysis and flimsy argumentation.

The Los Angeles Times reasoning for its No endorsement was particularly bizarre. The first three paragraphs read like a great Yes argument, including:

In most cases, there is no requirement to inform consumers, via labels, about the use of pesticides, hormones or antibiotics, or about the inhumane conditions in which animals are often kept. But Proposition 37 would make an exception for genetically engineered food, requiring that it be labeled before being sold in California.

The board then makes a lengthy and twisted argument summed up as: With so many other things wrong with the food supply, why single out GMOs? The paper claims we should be more worried about how…

… three-fourths of the antibiotics in this country are used to fatten and prevent disease in livestock, not to treat disease in people. The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria from overuse of pharmaceuticals poses a real threat to public health. So why label only the bioengineered foods? Because the group that wrote Proposition 37 happened to target them. What's needed is a consistent, rational food policy, not a piecemeal approach based on individual groups' pet concerns.

Has the L.A. Times missed the decades-long movement to halt the overuse of antibiotics in livestock? It has been gaining more traction lately. You would think they would have heard of it. How exactly do two wrongs make a right? And a “consistent, rational food policy” would be nice in a consistent, rational world, but that’s not the planet we inhabit. Or the state. Advocates often have to fight these battles one at time because the food industry is so powerful it’s the only way we can get anything done.

Finally, the reference to “groups’ pet concerns” is condescending and ignorant. More than a million Americans have signed a petition asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to label GMOs, a request that one survey showed 91 percent of Americans agree with, but that the FDA has so far ignored thanks to politics. (This, despite President Obama’s campaign promise to label GMOs; see this video from Food Democracy Now.) Moreover, volunteers in California helped gather more than a million signatures to get Prop 37 on the ballot. Also, most of the groups working to get GMO labeling have also been working on the other food system problems the Times mentions (and many more), so these are hardly “pet concerns” to advocates, and shame on the L.A. Times for saying so.

Undoubtedly, the single most disturbing and outright false argument made by at least three newspapers (the Sacramento Bee, the San Jose Mercury News, and the San Francisco Chronicle) is how the proponents of Prop 37 should have gone through the legislature first. The Bee said that “proponents made no effort to push the concept through the Legislature” and the Chronicle claimed that “advocates of the labeling law never attempted that step, despite Democratic majorities in both houses.”


In fact, organizations such as the Center for Food Safety (full disclosure: this article is on behalf of CFS) have tried numerous times to introduce such a bill, and could never even get a legislator to introduce a bill. However CFS was able to get a bill to label genetically engineered fish introduced in 2011 (AB 88, authored by Assemblymember Jared Huffman), and while it passed through the assembly health committee, it failed in appropriations.

For these three major California newspapers to base their No on 37 endorsements on such patently false claims about the legislative process completely boggles the mind. This is no small mistake. Many editorial boards have made it clear that they just don’t like the initiative process and are quick to bash it. Fair enough, but at least acknowledge that those fighting for GMO labeling in California did try to go through the legislature first. To say otherwise is giving readers the false impression that Prop 37 proponents were too lazy or stupid to bother going through that important first step. Given the massive amount of resources required to engage in the initiative process in California (either in volunteer effort or money or both), most advocacy groups would only choose this route after failing multiple times in the legislature. It’s just too big an undertaking, and extremely risky financially. And yet, these newspapers make it sound like Prop 37 proponents took the easy way out. Hardly. Running up against the deep, deep pockets of No on Prop 37 donors like Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola is not exactly the easy way.

Related to this false statement is the notion the legislature would do a better job drafting a bill to label GMOs. The San Jose Mercury News predicted that the legislative “give and take would have resulted in a better-drafted law that we might well have supported.” Really? Has anyone on these editorial boards ever been to the state’s capital to witness California sausage-making first hand? I have, and it’s not pretty. That both houses have a Democratic majority hardly matters, as corporate lobbyists write most of the bills in their favor and then gut the rest to render them toothless.

Even if a GMO labeling bill for all foods was introduced, the resulting bill would either die in committee or come out the other end in favor of Monsanto et al. That’s exactly why Prop 37 proponents had to resort to the initiative process. As flawed as it is; it’s all we have left. Prop 37 may not be perfect, but it’s the best chance we have of getting GMO labeling right now, so why not support it? According to California’s leading newspapers, GMO labeling should only happen through a rational legislative process where all stakeholders have their say, resulting in a balanced and perfect law that would make everyone happy. What world do these editorial board members live in?

That so many California newspapers failed to understand the political realities that led to Prop 37 in the first place raises troubling questions about the relevance of proposition endorsements in general. Many Californians rely on their local papers to help them understand the numerous and complex ballot initiatives each election. But if editorial boards can’t bother to get their facts straight, they have abdicated their responsibility and simply cannot be trusted to offer voters fair recommendations. Maybe it’s time newspapers retired the practice altogether. If the debacle of Prop 37 editorials is any indication, the voting public would be better off doing its own homework.

Paid for by Californians for Truth in Labeling-Yes on 37, sponsored by the Center for Food Safety Action Fund

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