California's Prop. 37 brings GMOs to forefront for restaurant operators

Staff Writer
GMOs are heading the the debate's forefront

A growing number of restaurant operators are taking interest in a proposition to be decided by California voters on Tuesday that would require the labeling of some genetically modified foods.

Proposition 37, the Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Modified Food Act, is designed to give consumers more information about foods and products that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. A high percentage of corn, soybeans and sugar beets used in processed foods in the U.S. are genetically modified.

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The measure would apply to labels on supermarket foods, primarily, and restaurants would not be required to disclose the presence of GMO ingredients on menus. However, restaurant operators say the proposal has raised awareness of GMOs among consumers, and now it’s an issue they must also address.

Some operators say labeling would help them know what ingredients are genetically engineered — though they’re not necessarily going to avoid them when purchasing products for their restaurants.

“The jury’s still out on GMOs,” said Mary Sue Milliken, co-owner of the multi-unit Border Grill based in Los Angeles. “They may be the next best thing that will save the world and feed the hungry. I don’t think we know one way or the other. But it’s important to know what you’re buying.”

Prop. 37 is officially opposed by the California Restaurant Association, based on a vote by the group’s political action committee board. “We think it’s poor policy, not based on sound science,” said Matt Sutton, CRA’s vice president of government affairs.

Opponents of Prop. 37 — which include large food companies producing consumer and foodservice goods — argue that the labeling requirement is deceptive and would mislead consumers about the safety of biotechnology, which has been in use for two decades. In addition, opponents say that approval of the measure would result in higher grocery bills, as well as open up farmers and other businesses to lawsuits, and increase the state’s bureaucracy and red tape.

Supporters of Prop. 37, on the other hand, disagree on all counts. The long-term safety of GMO use has not been adequately studied, they contend, and labeling will allow consumers to decide for themselves whether to buy, or avoid, such foods.

A growing foodservice issue

Prop. 37 has already had an impact on the foodservice industry nationwide — even before the vote. Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., with 1,300 units, for example, is moving away from genetically modified ingredients. In reporting third-quarter results last month, Chipotle officials said the company is expanding the use of GMO-free sunflower oil and testing a GMO-free rice bran oil to eventually replace the conventionally produced soybean oil used currently.

Steve Ells, the company's co-chief executive, said, “With California’s Prop. 37 on the ballot, the subject of GMOs is becoming a bigger part of the conversation about food-related issues. And we’re pleased to be ahead of the curve looking for non-GMO options to replace the ingredients we use that are genetically modified.”

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