Legislation on whether and how to label foods containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients limped forward on May 2 when the Senate Agriculture Committee in California, the US's largest food producer, passed a bill setting up a government task force to review the matter. Although 15 other US states have introduced bills that would require labeling of GM foods, the California bill is the first to pass a committee vote—the first step to becoming state law.
However, although the original version of the bill proposed mandatory labeling of all foods containing more than 0.1% GM ingredients, that provision was eliminated after opposition from agriculture and industry groups during the May 2 hearing. As a result, the committee amended the wording to state merely that consumers have a “right to know” about GM content of food.
One food industry representative says consumer demand for such labeling is not significant, but admits it is growing. “The activist community will tell you consumers are demanding it, but that's not quite the case,” says Brian Sansoni, spokesperson for the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA; Washington, DC), which opposed the mandatory labeling provision.
Marc Lappé, director of the Center for Ethics and Toxics (Mendocino County, CA) and longtime opponent of biotechnology (Nat. Biotechnol. 17, 848), wrote the original bill, which was introduced by Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica). “We're very discouraged by the lack of action of the legislature,” says Lappé, who insists consumers have a right to know about the content of foods.
The bill must still pass a vote of the full legislature and be signed by Gov. Gray Davis before becoming law, but passage is expected because the most onerous sections, from industry's perspective, have been deleted. However, the legislature must first wait for directors of the three state agencies of the working group—Department of Food and Agriculture, Department of Health Services, and Department of Consumer Affairs—to make their recommendations, which aren't due for submission until 2002.
Meanwhile, anti-GM activists suffered another blow in early May when they failed to collect enough signatures to put a mandatory GM labeling question on the California November general election ballot. According to Lappé, proponents obtained only a quarter of the 400,000 signatures needed.