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California's GMO petition is a danger to industry

There has been a great hubbub recently about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  The Just Label It campaign has submitted a massive petition on the subject to FDA. The move toward requiring GMO ingredients to be called out on labels has garnered some powerful support in the natural products business.

But there is one initiative in this campaign that manufacturers in the natural products business cannot get behind.  The story is unfolding in California, where a group called the Committee for the Right to Know is pushing a ballot initiative.  As with that state’s Proposition 65, which has been on the books since 1986, the intent might be good, but the devil is in the details.

California law allows voters to put laws directly on the books via initiative. (Other states, like Colorado, attach such initiatives as amendments to the state constitution.) Here’s the catch: Unlike laws that go through the legislature, where they are debated, and there is an opportunity for their weaknesses or omissions to be identified and (one hopes) fixed, the California initiative process is an all-or-nothing deal.  Once the language of the proposed law is finalized and the petition process begins, that language can’t be changed.  How would voters know what they are signing up for otherwise? So even while the backers of this initiative say they are open to compromise, it seems functionally impossible.

And buried within this proposed law is a provision on enforcement very similar to the one in Prop 65.  It expands responsibility for enforcement of the law beyond the purview of state government and puts it into the hands of the citizens.  Law firms representing citizens via class actions can sue manufacturers who are deemed to be in violation of various Prop 65 provisions.  And the way the enforcement provision is written, they don’t even have to show that consumers were damaged somehow by the manufacturers’ actions.  Showing injury is a key requirement for bringing almost any civil action.

That Prop 65 wording has taken millions of dollars from manufacturers and put it into the pockets of trial lawyers with little or no benefit to the public.  Certain law firms have made a thriving cottage industry (or should I say, mansion industry) out of bringing these class action suits.  The firms get a huge payday while the class participants might, if they’re lucky, get enough to buy a six pack. Lawyers who sharpened their teeth on Prop 65 are slavering over the potential lawsuit opportunities offered by this new initiative.

The debate on GMOs has not proceeded to the point of litmus tests, i.e., if you agree with me on the GMO issue, you’re good, if not, you’re bad.  Let’s hope it doesn’t. But if it does, keep in mind that industry groups and manufacturers that oppose the California initiative will do so not because they like GMOs necessarily, but because they don’t like frivolous lawsuits.

What's your view?

What's your view on GMOs?  What's the best way to address the issue with legislators? Let us know in the comments below, and follow the discussion on the Engredea/Functional Ingredients Linkedin group.

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