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The owner of a La Jolla cupcake shop that caters to summer tourists might seem an unlikely hero in the effort to pass Proposition 37, a state measure on the November ballot that would require labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients.

After all, Michelle Ciccarelli Lerach is a frosting pusher, albeit an organic frosting pusher. But she’s also a philanthropist and sustainable food activist who has donated time and money ($25,000) to Prop. 37, which includes trying to combat what she says are razzle-dazzle, confuse-the-consumer messages from the opposing side.

“It’s like a scene out of [the musical] ‘Chicago,’” she said. “The No on 37 campaign throws up a lot of smoke screens, trying to confuse consumers. To me it’s unthinkable that we don’t have the fundamental right to know what’s in the food we buy. And the reason we don’t have it is that corporations have control over our food supply.”

Prop. 37 would require labeling on the front or back of packaged foods that says, “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.” In the case of a whole food — for example, genetically modified sweet corn — a sign on the retail shelf or bin would say, “Genetically Engineered.”

Another provision addresses the term “natural.” If passed, products that contain ingredients that have been genetically modified will no longer be able to use terms like “natural” or “naturally grown” in their marketing or labeling. Exemptions to the measure include items like meat, alcohol, dairy, eggs or food prepared in restaurants. Organic food is also exempt because federal standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program do not allow genetically modified crops to carry the organic label. Food companies would have until July 2014 to comply with the new labeling requirements.

Who Opposes Prop. 37?

The No on 37 campaign, it turns out, is a formidable adversary. It has surpassed $34 million in funding, raking in donations from large corporations that would be directly impacted by the proposition. Those donations have helped fund TV and radio ads to boost their effort.

Corporations that have made significant donations to the No on 37 campaign include Monsanto ($7.1 million), DuPont ($4.9 million), Dow AgroSciences ($2 million) and Bayer CropScience ($2 million). They make which make genetically modified seeds for commodity crops like corn, soybean, canola and sugar beets; as well as herbicides like glyphosate, used in conjunction with those crops.

The food industry, which uses genetically modified ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup and canola oil, in thousands of everyday products, has also poured in money. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kellogg (parent company of La Jolla-based natural-brand Kashi cereals), ConAgra, General Mills and San Diego-based Bumble Bee Foods have all donated to the No on 37 effort.

At the crux of the No on 37 argument is cost. Opponents say Prop. 37 will cost a whopping $1.2 billion because of expensive regulations, impacting everyone from food processors to farmers.

“Prop. 37 is not a simple labeling measure,” said Kathy Fairbanks, a spokesperson for No on 37. “It’s a complicated measure that will increase grocery bills by up to $400 a year per California family. It will increase state bureaucracy and taxpayer costs by millions. It creates a brand new category of shakedown lawsuits against grocers and farmers. And it includes special interest exemptions that give special loopholes to two-thirds of the foods we eat, foods that can contain GE ingredients.”

Who Supports Prop. 37?

The California Right To Know campaign (also known as Yes on 37), has been far more reliant on small donors, paired with more substantial funding from organic brands like California rice grower Lundberg Family Farms, Clif Bar, Amy’s, Earthbound Farm, Applegate, Organic Valley, Escondido-based Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, Ocean Beach People’s Organic Food Market and more. The campaign has brought in just more than $4 million.

Stacy Malkan, spokesperson for the Yes on 37 campaign, said despite their smaller budget, they have been running radio ads to counter attacks from the No on 37 campaign, and will be launching television ads soon.

“Prop. 37 is a simple labeling law that gives consumers the right to know what’s in our food, period,” said Malkan. “It doesn’t cost companies anything to tell us what’s in their products. It doesn’t add one bit of bureaucracy and there’s no money in it for lawyers. The pesticide companies that are funding the opposition are desperate to confuse voters and have unleashed a war of deception to do so.”

Prop. 37 supporters also scoff at the notion that its requirements are overly burdensome.

Straus Family Creamery recently changed its labels to make the point. Its milk and yogurt products just now hitting shelves will come with pro-Prop. 37 messaging on the package.

“The opposition to Prop. 37 likes to point out that labeling is too costly for manufacturers and consumers,” said Albert Straus, president of Straus Family Creamery in a statement, “but we can show that we only spend a fraction of a cent per bottle to change the entire information on the back side of our milk bottles. We change our packaging several times a year, which is a planned expense. It has absolutely no effect on our bottom line or on the price to the consumer.”

Who Are the San Diego Players?

San Diego plays a unique role in the current fight. The county is home to more than 300 organic farms. Of the more than $4 million raised by the Yes on 37 campaign, close to $400,000 came from San Diego County, including donations from Lerach, People’s Market and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps.

On the No on 37 side, San Diego-based Bumble Bee Foods chipped in $368,500.

Fairbanks says her campaign is looking at the state as a whole, and not focusing specifically on regions like San Diego. But the Yes on 37 campaign says it is keeping a close eye on San Diego.

“San Diego is a very important region to get the word out,” says Malkan. “It’s not as strong in support [of Prop. 37], yet some of the biggest financial support is coming from health conscious people in San Diego that believe we have the right to know what’s in our food.”

Beyond California

Prop. 37 may be a California initiative, but it has the nation’s food industry on edge. It’s expected to have national implications should it pass in November, as author Michael Pollan pointed out in a recent New York Times piece:

California’s Proposition 37, which would require that genetically modified (G.M.) foods carry a label, has the potential to do just that — to change the politics of food not just in California but nationally too. Now, there is much that’s wrong with California’s notorious initiative process: it is an awkward, usually sloppy way to make law. Yet for better or worse, it has served as a last- or first-ditch way for issues that politicians aren’t yet ready to touch — whether the tax rebellion of the 1970s (Prop 13) or medical marijuana in the 1990s (Prop 215) — to win a hearing and a vote and then go on to change the political conversation across the country.

Clare Leschin-Hoar is a freelance writer who covers seafood, sustainability and food politics. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, The Wall Street Journal, Eating Well, TakePart.com and many more. You can contact her directly at clare@leschin-hoar.com. Find her on Twitter at @c_leschin.

Sara Libby

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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