Proposition 37 in California: A high-stakes food fight

By Dana Hull

California’s crowded November ballot includes white-hot measures to raise taxes, amend the state’s Three Strikes Law and repeal the death penalty. But a once-obscure measure requiring labels on genetically engineered food is quickly emerging as one of the most expensive, high-stakes showdowns on the 11-measure ballot.

If Proposition 37 passes, California would become the first state in the nation to require new labels on a host of food products commonly found on grocery store shelves, from breakfast cereals to sodas to tofu.

Proponents, largely big natural food companies and consumers who are passionate about organic food, have raised $2.8 million as of Thursday, according to campaign finance records filed with the California Secretary of State’s Office. Scores of individuals have made $100 donations, but most of the money is coming from organic businesses such as Nature’s Path Foods and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. A company owned by Joseph Mercola, a controversial holistic health activist from Illinois with more than 100,000 Twitter followers, has kicked in $800,000.

Opponents have raised nine times as much. Almost all of the nearly $25 million has come from a variety of chemical, seed and processed-food companies, including Coca-Cola, General Mills, Nestle, PepsiCo and DuPont Pioneer. St. Louis-based Monsanto, a leading producer of genetically engineered seeds, donated $4.2 million, the largest donation.

“This one snuck up on everyone,” said Bob Stern, a California campaign finance expert. “No one was paying attention, and all of a sudden proponents turned in their signatures. It takes a lot of money to get something on the ballot, but once it’s on the ballot it takes a lot of money to defeat it.”

Stern noted that in 2008, California passed Proposition 2 — which prohibits the close confinement of farm animals like chickens in crates — with 63.5 percent of the vote. He sees similarities with Proposition 37, saying both are “feel-good” initiatives.

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