Warning Labels on Food?

March 4, 2017 02:48 AM

Through the years, I’ve heard several West Coast friends joke, “If you want to see what you’ll be doing in 10 years, look at what Californians are doing today.”

While they might have intended it to be taken in jest, there’s a nugget of truth to the statement. Organic food, legal marijuana and plastic bag taxes/bans, once dismissed as utopian pipe dreams of California “hippies,” are now gaining major toeholds across the country. With that history in mind, I think we in agriculture should be more than a little concerned about the latest emerging trend in California—warning labels for food products. 

The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) is evaluating whether to deem glyphosate a carcinogen under the state’s Proposition 65. This could pave the way for placement of warning labels on a majority of the processed foods sold in grocery stores. It could also ultimately lead to major changes in herbicide use.

In 1986, California voters approved the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, commonly known as Proposition 65. Under Prop. 65, OEHHA evaluates substances suspected to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. If OEHHA determines a substance is known to cause any of these issues, it is “listed” under Prop. 65. If a substance is listed, then products containing the substance are required to bear a warning label indicating the product contains a substance known to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. The label does not indicate what substance triggered the warning. Thus, if you’re buying a product with the label, you’re apt to think twice about your purchase.

There has been much discussion in the scientific community regarding whether glyphosate is a carcinogen. In the farming community, glyphosate has been touted as having relatively low health and environmental risks compared with other crop protection tools, which helped make glyphosate the most popular herbicide for many major row crops. 

However, in 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen.” Under IARC’s classification system, a substance is a probable carcinogen if there’s limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans but evidence of cancer developing in experimental animals. Although this classification has been criticized as premature or incomplete, it has nonetheless triggered OEHHA to evaluate whether glyphosate should be listed.

If glyphosate is listed, warning labels might be affixed to a number of food products on grocery shelves in California. Under Prop. 65, California citizens can sue companies for failure to display warning labels on products containing substances listed under Prop. 65. Although federal regulations already prohibit unsafe levels of pesticide residues, a food deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration might still contain enough residue to trigger a Prop. 65 warning label. 

I should note there are pesticides listed under Prop. 65 already, and they have not led to warning labels on food. But considering the prevalence of glyphosate use, there’s a high likelihood the plaintiffs would sue alleging labels should be required. Companies would either label products or seek out ingredients not treated with glyphosate.

OEHHA has extended its review of glyphosate. Hopefully, their decision will be based on science. 

This column is not a substitute for legal advice. 

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