The FDA is evaluating a petition to label genetically engineered foods nationwide; the group spearheading that effort is separate from California's initiative.
The push comes as genetic engineering is expanding beyond traditional crops. Last year, agricultural regulators approved the planting of genetically modified alfalfa, angering organic farmers who feared cross-contamination. An application is pending on an Atlantic salmon that has been genetically manipulated to grow twice as fast as a regular salmon.
California's ballot initiative would require most raw foods such as fruits and vegetables and processed foods by 2014 to bear the label "partially produced with genetic engineering" or "may be partially produced with genetic engineering." Meat and dairy products would be exempt even if the animals are fed with biotech grains. Organic foods, restaurant meals and alcohol are also excluded.
Supermarkets and other retailers would be in charge of making sure products for sale are properly labeled. Spot checks would be carried out by California Department of Public Health inspectors. The nonpartisan California Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that it could cost up to $1 million a year to regulate.
The initiative also allows individuals or groups to sue if they find food has been mislabeled. The California Grocers Association said supermarkets will do their best to comply if the measure passes, but noted it would be taxing on store owners. The group also fears being the target of lawsuits.
Association President Ronald Fong said it will be a burden for grocers to check the label of every box and keep track of their efforts in case they get sued.
"It's going to be a complete paperwork nightmare," he said.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which advocates for food safety, has not taken a side on the initiative. But Gregory Jaffe, the group's biotechnology director, favors giving the government more regulatory power over biotech crops.
"The solution is not labels," he said.
Alicia Chang can be followed at http://twitter.com/SciWriAlicia
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