People should have the information they need to choose whether or not they buy genetically modified (GMO) food, so it’s been disturbing to see the lies perpetrated by Monsanto and their anti-choice allies working against Prop 37, the California GMO Right-to-Know Ballot Initiative. Prop 37 would inform consumers with labels on genetically modified (GMO) food. At the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), we support Prop 37, as we believe people have the right to know what’s in their food.
But even more perplexing is the opposition argument equating the GMO initiative with a California public health law that has been on the books for more than twenty five years, known as Prop 65. What’s odd is that the anti-choice side is attempting to scare Californians by misstating the public record about Prop 65 and falsely claiming that the GMO labeling law will lead to “a flood” of lawsuits.
Prop 65 has a long track record of protecting public health. Several landmark legal agreements under Prop 65 have directly created comprehensive public health benefits, successfully eliminating cancer and birth defect-causing chemicals from thousands of products our children and families use every day. CEH’s legal action under Prop 65, for example, has eliminated lead threats to children from dozens of products, including baby bibs, diaper rash creams, lunchboxes, children’s jewelry, and many more. Under the law, we have also won agreements to protect drinking water statewide from a major source of lead pollution, and eliminated hundreds of thousands of pounds of air pollution across California.
Our Prop 65 lawsuits on lead in children’s jewelry are an example of the law’s power to protect children and families. Just weeks after we launched our first Prop 65 jewelry action and alerted consumers to the dangers of high levels of lead found in cheap metal jewelry, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced the nation’s largest product recall ever, when more than 150 million pieces of potentially lead-tainted children’s jewelry were taken off of the market. Our legal agreements under Prop 65 with more than 200 jewelry retailers, distributors and suppliers set de facto national standards to eliminate lead hazards from jewelry sold to both children and adults. My peer-reviewed paper (written with CEH Research Director Caroline Cox) found that prior to our Prop 65 lawsuits, as much as half of all costume jewelry contained excessive levels of lead; following our legal agreements with nearly the entire industry, we found lead problems in less than 5% of the jewelry tested – a significant reduction and a major health victory, thanks to Prop 65.
Using Prop 65, CEH also eliminated lead risks to children from candies. That’s right – for years, the state had found that many candies imported from Mexico contained levels of lead that could poison our children. Yet the state health regulators had little authority to address the problems, other than to request voluntary recalls on the few occasions when candy was tested. Costing the state nothing, we undertook our own investigation and testing, and working with the Attorney General’s office, we won a legal agreement under Prop 65 that required Mars, Hersheys, and other candy makers to make changes that would end these lead threats to children. We are now pursuing new Prop 65 actions to end lead threats we recently discovered in plum candies and candied ginger purchased from several retailers.
Opponents of Prop 37 say that we don’t need GMO labels because GMOs are safe and thus labeling should not be required. But twenty-five years ago, when Prop 65 was created, scientists did not fully understand the risks of lead poisoning, and many believed that small lead exposures would not cause health problems. Today the Centers for Disease Control expresses the expert consensus, stating that “no safe level of lead exposure has been identified.” The warning label provisions created by Prop 65 helped protect millions of children while the science caught up to the law. Similarly, since there have been no long-term studies demonstrating that GMO foods are safe, Prop 37 can help protect our children and families while science catches up.
Furthermore, labeling is often required even for foods that are tested for safety when consumers have found the information to be important for informed choice. For example, foods must state on labels when they contain artificial colors and flavors. Unlike GMOs, which can be put into our foods without any safety testing at all, artificial colors and flavors must pass a battery of safety tests before they can be used in food. But their presence must still be declared on labels. Labeling GMOs is essential so doctors can trace problems, when they occur. As Dr. Martha Herbert, a pediatric neurologist at Harvard Medical School has stated,
Tracing health problems to genetically engineered foods is almost impossible right now, because these foods are not labeled and there is no way to keep track of them. So there is no scientific basis at this time for saying that these foods are problem-free.
Independent doctors and scientists have warned about health and environmental risks from GMO foods, yet our federal regulators have let us down us by allowing these risky new foods to go unlabeled. Californians have the chance to address this situation by voting Yes on Prop 37 next week. Don’t let industry scare tactics mislead you – support our right-to-know what’s in our food, and vote Yes on Prop 37!