SANTA CRUZ - The use of the phrase "natural" on everything from peanut butter to orange juice could be imperiled by a statewide proposal to label genetically modified food, even if the food in question has never seen the bottom of a test tube.

That claim is being made by opponents of Proposition 37, who include biotech representatives, grocers' groups, farmers and Fortune 500 companies, arguing the proposal's language could ban even frozen fruits and vegetables from being labeled "natural," no matter how they are grown.

"It will limit how we market ourselves," said Jamie Johansson, owner of Oroville-based olive oil producer Lodestar Farms, saying those labels help small family farms distinguish themselves from large operations. "This would affect our ability to do that."

Prop. 37 supporters dismiss the claim as a genetically modified red herring, saying the clear aim is foods where the DNA has been modified in some way.

"The initiative is clearly intended to cover genetically engineered foods only," said Stacy Malkan, a spokeswoman for the California Right to Know campaign.

But the possibility is supported by the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst's Office, which concluded courts could apply the label prohibition to "all processed foods regardless of whether they are genetically engineered."

Johansson would have opposed Prop. 37 anyway - he is the second vice president of the California Farm Bureau, which has taken a stand against it.


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He is in the minority. A recent poll by the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and the California Business Roundtable found Prop. 37 among the most popular of the 11 initiatives on the November ballot, with 69 percent of voters favoring it.

The bill would require the labeling of any product containing genetically modified foods, something the European Union, China and several other countries already do.

There is no evidence genetically modified foods are harmful, but proponents say without labels, there is no way for consumers to choose not to eat them. Mercola.com Health Resources, the Organic Consumers Fund and Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps are major donors to a campaign supporting Prop. 37.

In Santa Cruz County - which helped foster the growth of the organic food movement - locals were active in getting the initiative on the ballot and are strong supporters, organizing meet-ups, seminars, concerts and a weekly radio show on KSCO.

The language in question has to do with which foods may be labeled "natural," which has long been a source of controversy. The Food and Drug Administration does not define it, and generally doesn't interfere with the term as long as a product does not contain artificial flavors or colors, or synthetic substances.

Prop. 37 addresses that controversy, setting out a series of criteria for foods that may not be labeled "natural." One includes processed foods, defined elsewhere as any food that has undergone "canning, smoking, pressing, cooking, freezing, dehydration, fermentation or milling."

Whether that applies to foods that don't include genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, is the source of the controversy.

Attacks on Prop. 37 have so far focused on the cost to producers and a provision allowing lawyers to sue over violations. In their latest salvo, opponents point out that the disputed language differs from failed labeling efforts in two other states, and that regardless of intent, words matter.

"Aim, or intent, doesn't matter, only the language," said Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for the No on 37 campaign.

Follow Sentinel reporter Jason Hoppin on Twitter: @scnewsdude

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©2012 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)

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