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California's Genetically Engineered Food Label May Confuse More Than Inform

When Californians go to the polls in November, they will very likely have the chance to make California the first state in the nation to require labeling of genetically engineered food. That's according to California Right to Know, which filed a petition to force a statewide vote.

And the group is pretty confident it will succeed. "Polls show that nine out of ten California voters agree that they want labeling," Stacy Melkam, spokeswoman for the group, tells The Salt.

But a new analysis of the labeling initiative suggests that if it passes, it would create a complex mandate for food companies that may make it harder — not easier — for consumers to figure out what's really in their food. That's because the initiative muddies the definition of a "natural" food.

The word "natural" on a food label is already pretty controversial. It's more of a marketing tool than anything else — seducing consumers into thinking it means healthier, or nearly organic, although it may simply mean minimally-processed and free from artificial ingredients. The federal government has so far declined to make the term clearer, which has led to many processed foods using the "natural" label.

The activists behind the labeling initiative say they want California consumers to know what they're eating. So they're calling for any processed food or raw agricultural commodity (like corn) that has been or may have been partially or wholly produced with genetic engineering to be labeled as such. And they want to prevent processed foods with GE ingredients from using the "natural" label, too.

But Peggy Lemaux, a cooperative extension specialist at the University of California, Berkeley who manages an informational website on biotechnology, says her analysis of the document concluded that "natural" — as the Right To Know group wants it — would exclude plenty of non-GE and whole foods.

Further, Lemaux says her interpretation of the initiative included that a processed food could not be labeled "natural" unless it is a non-GE animal product, certified organic, or an alcoholic beverage.

"There's no clear definition of 'natural,' so I concluded that basically nothing processed can be 'natural' unless it's a processed organic food," says Lemaux. "It's really limiting, and it is going to make a large segment of the food production people mad."

However, Melkam, of Right to Know, says the initiative merely wants to keep food with GE ingredients from being called "natural." "The language is clear that non-GE processed foods could still be labeled 'natural,'" says Melkam.

Activists have been calling for labeling of GE food for many years, but recent petition drives and polls suggest support for labeling is greater than it has ever been. As we reported in March, a coalition calling itself Just Label It commissioned a survey from a national pollster, which found that 91 percent of voters favor labeling.

Some 40 countries around the world now require labels for GM foods. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has maintained a firm stance since 2009 that GM labeling is unnecessary. The agency says genetically modified food is essentially the same as other food and poses no safety risk.

Lemaux, who has done extensive reviews of the scientific literature on GE foods, agrees with the FDA.

"This [labeling measure] is not going offer any additional safety to people; it's really not a food safety issue because there's no real evidence this stuff is unsafe," says Lemaux.

What's more she says, the GE and natural labels may scare less savvy consumers away from affordable, healthful foods. And, as we've reported before, Americans really don't understand what genetically engineered food is all about.

"If you're looking to know what's in your food, well there's a lot of stuff in your food, and there's already a lot of stuff on the label," says Lemeaux. "And a lot of people already don't read the label."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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