Though Washington state voters rejected a ballot initiative on Tuesday to label genetically engineered foods, the city council moved towards a local labeling ordinance of its own.
In a 5 to 2 vote the council passed a motion to begin drafting an ordinance that would require the labeling of genetically engineered foods for sale in Richmond.
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin who supported the motion said Richmond residents have a right to know what’s in their food. “This is just the first step,” she said.
The city of Berkeley recently passed a motion similar to Richmond’s. However, Berkeley’s proposal is limited to fresh produce, which dramatically reduces its impact.
The bulk of genetically engineered crops such as corn and soybeans do not appear in the produce aisles of your local grocery store. However, genetically engineered crops are nearly ubiquitous in processed foods and soft drinks.
It remains to be seen if Richmond’s ordinance will require labeling on these products, and if so, how it will be enforced.
Councilman Nat Bates predicted that the ordinance would be an “enforcement nightmare” and voted against the motion along with Vice Mayor Corky Booze.
Councilman Tom Butt, who sponsored the agenda item, agreed that there are a number of questions that need to be answered before the ordinance can be drafted.
These questions include: how would such an ordinance affect grocers, what — if anything — should be exempt and whether it would make it harder for low-income people to get healthy food.
Bea Roberson spoke against the motion during public comment, saying California voters already decided on this issue by rejecting Prop 37 — a statewide GMO labeling initiative in 2012.
Numbers from the California Secretary of State show that Richmond voters may be more amenable to the idea of a labeling law than the state as whole. The city voted in favor of Prop 37 by 20,022 to 14,830, a margin of nearly 15 percent.
However, the council is already starting to see some pushback. The California Growers Association — a trade association representing food retailers — warned McLaughlin in an email that “The logistics of our existing food system make local labeling requirements a significant challenge, and the City should weigh carefully whether the consequences of going beyond current mechanisms are acceptable for consumers and food retailers.” The CGA went on to assert that food labeling should be handled at the federal level.
Councilman Bates echoed some of the same concerns saying the item did not belong on the city council agenda. “For little old Richmond to try to impose these sanctions is a nightmare. It’s not within our jurisdiction.”
Whereas councilman Butt compared the proposed ordinance to the Richmond’s soda tax in 2012. Despite failing, Butt said it added momentum to an international campaign against sugary drinks.
“Whatever we do, I’m sure we’ll get sued for it,” Butt said. “But you’ve got start somewhere.”