SACRAMENTO — Whole Foods Market, the largest U.S. natural-goods specialty retailer, has endorsed a California initiative that would require the labeling of genetically engineered food ingredients.
The Austin, Texas, company is backing Proposition 37 on the November ballot "because it has long believed its customers have the right to know how their food is produced."
That "right to know" is the main argument for the ballot measure, which has strong support from farmers, processors and sellers of organic foods. It's opposed by biotech companies, grocery manufacturers and the soft drink industry, among others.
The grocery industry contends that genetically engineered foods are healthful and no different nutritionally from organic fruits, vegetables and grains.
Opponents, so far, have raised about $25 million to fight Proposition 37, while supporters reported $3.5 million as of Sept. 1, according to Maplight.org, a nonpartisan voter information service. Whole Foods has not contributed to the Yes on 37 campaign, according to filings with the California secretary of state.
Whole Foods' endorsement of Proposition 37 came with a couple of reservations.
In a Sept. 11 press release, the market complained that a 0.5% threshold was too low for exempting a product containing a small amount of genetically engineered content from the labeling requirement.
The company also objected to a provision that would allow private attorneys to sue on behalf of the state, alleging a violation of the labeling mandate, should it become law.
Stacy Malkan, the spokeswoman for the Proposition 37 campaign, welcomed the Whole Foods endorsement. "It shows support from a very important retailer," she said. "They make an effort to keep GMOs [genetically modified organisms] out of their stores."
But Malkan noted that the parts of Proposition 37 that Whole Foods doesn't like can't be removed from the initiative before the election. Nor can they be changed, if it should be approved, unless the effort gets the approval of two-thirds of the state Legislature and is deemed to be "in furtherance" of the law's intent.
Whole Foods' concerns with the initiative are legitimate but its call for modifying Proposition 37 is misguided, said Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for the No campaign.
"None of these provisions can be changed easily," she said. "The only way to get a change is through another ballot measure."