In the wake of a 56%-44% defeat of California’s Proposition 37, which would have required labeling of genetically engineered foods, the San Francisco Examiner newspaper’s online editorial asked the relevant question:

“Polls routinely show that 90% of all Americans support genetically modified food labeling. So how is it that California’s Proposition 37 was defeated so soundly yesterday?”

Here’s their answer:

“A last-minute $45-$48 million advertising campaign by multi-national food corporations asking the state’s voters to vote No on Prop 37. [It] would seem that pure, old-fashioned, repetitive advertising carried the day.”

Maybe money was the deciding factor, but allow me to amplify that insight somewhat: Prop 37 failed because it was a lousy law that was fatally positioned by the organic and natural foods interests that drummed up the measure in the first place.

Here’s why.

No matter how bland and benign the Yes on Prop 37 campaign tried to appear—“This is just a common-sense labeling issue because people have a right to know what’s in their food,” was a typical line—the measure’s supporters always ended up playing the dangerous and deadly card.

GMOs are dangerous to the environment. GMO foods are dangerous to human health. Biotechnology is an unproven, scary new science. Genetic engineering is creating horrible Frankenfoods that people are forced to eat. GM crops are allowing mega-corporations to control the world’s food supply.

All of that fear-mongering was eagerly encouraged, if not overtly promoted, by the groups working to mandate GE labeling.

Yet once the food industry and the biotech supplier companies began pointing out that more than two-thirds of all foods—including meat, dairy and foodservice products—were exempt under the rules of Prop 37, the obvious question arose: If GM foods are so horrible, why would the new law exclude the majority of foods people eat?


A moral victory?

Yesterday, the Yes on Proposition 37 campaign held a conference call with California media members to celebrate what they called the campaign’s “moral victory” and to outline the next steps in the group's continuing effort to push for GE labeling laws.

“We won a moral victory," said Dave Murphy, co-chairman of the Yes on 37 California Right to Know campaign and executive director of Food Democracy Now!, told reporters. “We exposed this issue nationally in a way that’s never been done before.”

Murphy blamed the proposition’s failure on $50 million in campaign spending by opponents. The No on 37 campaign received funding from the Monsanto Company, DuPont and the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Campaign contributors also included such major food processors as Kraft, Kellogg, General Mills, Coca-Cola and the Campbell Soup Company.

“We were outspent six-to-one by an opponent that used every dirty trick in the book to mislead voters about what the proposition was about,” added Ronnie Cummins, founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association, one of the key groups that ginned up the measure in the first place.

Cummins argued that voters were convinced by a “barrage of commercials” paid for by the No on 37 campaign telling them the initiative would hurt farmers, create unneeded bureaucracy and keep trial lawyers busy with frivolous lawsuits against mom-’n-pop producers.

He failed to note that a “barrage” of any kind of advertising only works when it’s grounded in reality, and everything the opponents of the measure identified as problems rang true with the majority of Californians.

The vote Tuesday was obviously a huge victory for agriculture and the food industry, defeating a measure that would have added costs, created confusion and failed to add even a scintilla of safety to California’s food supply.

Rather than waste any time popping the champagne, however, the forces that defeated this measure need to set in motion a program of voluntary labeling to be put in place proactively. The defeat of Prop 37 in no way should be seen as a repudiation of the Frankenfoods argument. Californians voted down a bad law that was poorly written and opaque on potential costs to the consumer. The underlying message that we should be afraid—very afraid—of biotechnology retains its traction with the majority of the public.

The only way, and I repeat—the only way—to negate those concerns is for the food industry to make the ultimate statement of safety by labeling its products, “Enhanced with genetically engineered ingredients.”

Then follow up with a “barrage” of messaging that communicates the benefits of biotech.

None of which will sink in unless industry is willing to put its labeling where its messaging is. If it’s so safe, then just say so.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.