What Would and Wouldn't Be Labeled Under the California Labeling Initiative?


California consumers would not be the first to encounter labeling of genetically engineered (GE) products in the marketplace if the CA Labeling Initiative had been approved. In 1996, British consumers were met with a tomato paste labeled as being "produced from genetically modified tomatoes". That product is no longer on the market but today there is vegetable oil made from GE soybeans on shelves in the U.K. and it is labeled as being made from "genetically engineered soya".

As stated in the proposition the purpose of the California Labeling Initiative was " create and enforce the fundamental right of the people of California to be fully informed about whether the food they purchase and eat is genetically engineered and not misbranded as natural so that they can choose for themselves whether to purchase and eat such foods." If it would have passed, the law was to have taken effect in January 2014. Based on wording in the Initiative, the following rules would have applied.

Labeling Relating to Genetic Engineering

  • Any product offered for retail sale in CA that has been or may have been partially or wholly produced with genetic engineering must be labeled.
  • Any raw agricultural commodity offered for retail sale must contain on the front of its package in clear and conspicuous words, "Genetically Engineered" (GE). If the agricultural commodity is not separately packaged or labeled, the label must be on the shelf or bin where the product is displayed.
  • For any processed foods, unless exempted (see below), there must be clear and conspicuous language on front or back of package stating, "Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering" or "May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering".

Labeling Related to Using "Natural"

  • The wording of this section was not clear. One interpretation of it was that the restriction in using the term "natural" only applied if a food meets the GE definitions above. In this case, those foods, being sold in a retail establishment or in advertising, could not have been labeled as "natural", "naturally made", "naturally grown", "all natural" or any similar wording. In another interpretation of this section of the Initiative, no processed food could be labeled "natural", whether or not it is GE or contains GE ingredients, unless it is a non-GE animal product, certified organic, an alcoholic beverage, or a medical food.
  • Likely the legal interpretation of the intent of this section would have been decided in the courts.
  • Processed food is defined as "any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any food produced from a raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing such as canning, smoking, pressing, cooking, freezing, dehydration, fermentation or milling."

What Exemptions Would There Have Been to Labeling?

Labeling requirements stated above would not have applied to:

  • Animals that are not genetically engineered regardless of whether fed with GE feed or injected with GE drugs.
  • Raw commodities or foods grown without intentional use of GE seed or food.
  • Foods certified as "organic" according to Organic Food Products Act.
  • Any processed food, which would otherwise be labeled solely because it had one or more GE processing aids or enzymes, is excluded.
  • Processed foods containing one or more GE substances, like enzymes, added during processing but that are removed from or are present in very low amounts in the finished product.
  • Alcoholic beverages.
  • Processed food where no one ingredient is more than 0.5% of the weight of the processed product or a processed food not containing more than ten such ingredients (until July 1, 2019, when this exemption would have presumably ended).
  • Processed food for immediate consumption in restaurant or other food facility.
  • Medical food.

Failure to follow these rules would have resulted in prosecution without the consumer needing to establish any damage. Any person could have brought action in superior court and the court would have had jurisdiction to grant temporary or permanent injunctions restraining any person from violating any provision.

Given the above descriptions, California consumers were led to ask exactly what would and would not have been labeled as genetically engineered or natural, if the labeling initiative had passed.Based on wording of the 2012 proposition, the following would likely have occurred. (link to table).

Originally written 9/10/12, updated 3/22/13.