Big food and beverage marketers scored a victory Tuesday when California voters rejected a proposal to label genetically modified foods.
Proposition 37, which was supported by small organic and natural food brands, trailed 53% to 47% with nearly 99% of precincts reporting as of Wednesday morning.
Marketers such as PepsiCo, Nestle, Coca Cola Co. and Conagra donated millions of dollars to the "no" side, which argued that the measure was not scientifically justified and would raise food costs.
Supporters of the measure -- including adman and activist Alex Bogusky -- argued that genetically engineered foods have not been proven safe and that consumers should have a right to know what is in their food.
Mr. Bogusky said the "yes" side would press forward, but should learn lessons from the loss. He said "right to know" polls well in a "vacuum prior to a ballot selection." But as voters are told they're picking between knowing what's in their food and affordable groceries, "they pick groceries," he wrote in an email. "So somehow the pro-labeling folks need to develop a message that resonates with basic needs. It can be done." He added: "The biochemical companies should add a new line item to their annual budgets because we won't give up until Americans win back their right to know what they are eating."
The pro-proposition campaign jumped to an early lead in polling, but lost ground as opponents used their significant financial advantage to paint the measure as unnecessary, misleading and flawed. Ads warned of higher grocery bills and said supporters were relying on "junk science."
In total, opponents raised $46 million, including $8.1 million from Monsanto Co., which sells seeds for genetically modified crops designed to increase yields, according to MapLight. Supporters raised $9.2 million, including $100,000 from Mr. Bogusky.
An estimated 70% to 80% of packaged foods contain genetically modified ingredients, including corn, soybeans and sugar beets. The crops are genetically altered for a desired result, such as resistance to pests. Big packaged-food marketers had much at stake, because with a win supporters would have claimed some momentum nationally, possibly fueling efforts in other states.
"California voters clearly saw through Prop 37 and rejected higher food costs, more lawsuits and more bureaucracy," the No campaign said in a statement. "Food labeling policy should be based on logic and science, not fear."
But supporters on Wednesday also claimed some progress. "In many ways, the Yes on 37 campaign was a huge victory for awareness," stated a web post by advocacy organization naturalnews.com, which gave $10,000 in support of the measure. "The campaign organized over 10,000 volunteers in California alone and succeeded in achieving a massive social media presence. The Yes on 37 campaign also forced Monsanto and the biotech giants to spend $45 million to defeat the measure."
Separately, big beverage marketers claimed another California victory when voters in the city of Richmond rejected a sugar-sweetened beverage tax. The American Beverage Association, a national lobbying group, spent nearly $2.5 million against the measure, the Contra Costa Times reported. A similar measure in El Monte, Calif., was also rejected.