Shoddy Drafting or Part of the Plan?: The “Natural” Problem in California’s Biotech Food Labeling Initiative


Cross-posted at’s Washington Legal Foundation contributor page

The “California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” also known as Proposition 37 (“Prop 37”), advances the deeply misguided aspirations of several powerful special interests, including the plaintiffs’ bar, environmentalists, and public health activists. Part of this ballot initiative would require all raw and processed foods whose production was impacted in any way by biotechnology to be labeled as such. Prop 37 allows private citizens (i.e., lawyers) to sue farmers, distributors, grocers, and food companies for $1,000-a-day fines and punitive damages if a product is out of compliance.

The mandated labeling and the private enforcement provisions of the initiative have received an increasing amount of attention. There is, however, another part of Prop 37 which has been subjected to very little public scrutiny. That is about to change, however, because this section contains a possible poison pill that may sink the entire initiative. In addition to requiring “genetically engineered” labels, Prop 37 prohibits the use of terms such as “natural” and “all natural” in product packaging and any advertising and promotional materials.


This prohibition of course applies to products impacted by biotechnology. But it also can apply to other foods regardless of whether or not they have been genetically engineered or include ingredients that have been. The California Attorney General’s title and summary of Prop 37 reflects this, as does the independent, non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office‘s summary. The “Yes on Prop 37” crowd urged a state judge to clarify that the “natural” marketing ban only applies to genetically engineered processed foods. But on August 10, the judge denied their request, instead ordering a minor wording change to the Legislative Analyst’s Office’s summary. Continue reading “Shoddy Drafting or Part of the Plan?: The “Natural” Problem in California’s Biotech Food Labeling Initiative”