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Freedom of choice includes the right to know | By Timi Gustafson, R.D.
New Yorkers are divided over Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to limit the size of sodas they can buy, according to a poll conducted by the New York Times.
Proponents of the initiative argue that such legislation is necessary to curb obesity and raise awareness about the harmful health effects of sugary drinks. Those opposed to the measure say consumers should have the freedom to make their own choices and not be coerced by an increasingly intrusive “nanny state” mentality of government.
From Coast to Coast, Americans Take Greater Interest in Their Food and Health
The American Beverage Association (http://ameribev.org/), in collaboration with restaurant chains and other retail outlets that risk losing millions of dollars in revenue if the Bloomberg plan gets approved next month, have launched a formidable counter- campaign (http://www.nycbeveragechoices.com), insisting that liberty (http:// www.nytimes.com/2012/08/23/nyregion/most-new-yorkers-oppose-bloombergs-soda- ban.html) itself is at stake if the government gets its way.
Meanwhile in California, an entirely different scenario is taking shape. Voters will decide in the November election whether consumers should have the right to know what goes in their food. Proposition 37 (http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/ California_Proposition_37,_Mandatory_Labeling_of_Genetically_Engineered_Food_ %282012%29), if it passes, will require food manufacturers to disclose whether theirproducts contain genetically modified organisms (GMO).
Genetic engineering is a process by which the DNA of living organisms is changed to improve certain qualities such as faster growth or resistance to pests. It is estimated (http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_21391702/proposition-37-california-high- stakes-food-fight) that 40 to 70 percent of foods currently sold in grocery stores in California contain some genetically altered ingredients.
Countless food items (http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/Prop-37- Consumers-need-to-know-3805500.php) like baby formula, corn flakes or soymilk have such components, although they are not labeled as such. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require safety studies, and no long-term research on potential health effects has been conducted yet, although there are reports (http:/ /www.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/Prop-37-Consumers-need-to-know- 3805500.php) of preliminary studies that have linked GMOs to allergies and other health risks.
There are also environmental concerns. Critics say that GMO crops have led to an overall increase in pesticide use (http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/ Prop-37-Consumers-need-to-know-3805500.php) and unintentional contamination (http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/Prop-37-Consumers-need-to-know- 3805500.php) of non-GMO crops.
Proposition 37 does not intend to impose any bans. “It’s simply saying: Let’s give consumers information so we can choose for ourselves whether or not we want to eat genetically engineered foods. Consumers in 50 other countries – including all of Europe, Japan, China and Russia – all have this right,” argued Grant Lundberg, the CEO of Lundberg Family Farms, and Kathryn Phillips, Director of the Sierra Club California, both strong supporters of the measure, in an op-ed article in the San Francisco Chronicle’s online publication, SFGate (http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/ article/Prop-37-Consumers-need-to-know-3805500.php).
Having started as a grassroots movement, Proposition 37 has a good chance of succeeding. As reported by the Los Angeles Times (http://articles.latimes.com/2012/aug/ 22/business/la-fi-gmo-campaign-funds-20120822), a whopping 65 percent of registered voters in California say they support the measure.
But so far, less than 3 million dollars have been raised by the organizers, mostly from organic farmers and environmental activists and their supporters. Opponents mainly chemical and food-processing companies, including Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Nestle, Coca Cola and Pepsico, have raised more than nine times as much, almost $25 million to date.
The question in both cases – the fight over New York City’s ban on supersized sodas and the disclosure requirement for GMO in California – is whether they are just another reflection of our political and social divisions or whether they are signs of a major shift in our relationship to our food and, in turn, to our health.
Food manufacturers are keenly aware that they are increasingly becoming a target for stricter legislation, like the tobacco industry before them. They are already facing a barrage of lawsuits (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/business/lawyers-of-big- tobacco-lawsuits-take-aim-at-food-industry.html?pagewanted=all) brought by individual consumers and advocacy groups who feel mislead by false advertisement or worse. Their campaigns to defend the status quo appear like last stands in a losing battle. Ignoring facts and keeping information secret is not a sustainable strategy in the long run. Once the paste is out of the tube, there is no putting it back in. California's Right-to-Know movement could morph into something like that with the potential of spreading across the whole country.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter (http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD) and on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/TimiGustafsonRD).