THE BLOG

Labeling, Calorie Counts and Prop 37

11/26/2012 10:42 am ET | Updated Jan 26, 2013

"Anyone who thinks we're going to walk away from trying to tell the public what they're eating and what it's doing to them doesn't understand the obligation this city's Health Department has... We have to tell people how to lead better lives." -- New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, September 12, 2007.

Mayor Bloomberg was referring to what would be nation's first calorie labeling law enacted. Approximately three-and-one-half years later, it's a shame there wasn't a Bloomberg equivalent to push through California's Proposition 37. It's an opportunity lost, because the right to know and informed choice would have the impact on consumer behaviour that calorie-labeling law has failed to produce.

The calorie labelling law required all restaurants in New York City that are part of a chain of 15 or more outlets nationally that serve standardized portions to post the calorie counts on menus and menu boards. It was hoped that providing this information at the point of purchase would give customers a reason to pause and opt for a less caloric options. It has not quite turned out this way. In a study the following year, November/December 2009, "Calorie Labeling And Food Choices: A First Look At The Effects On Low-Income People In New York City," the results suggested that calorie information increased awareness of the calories but did not necessarily alter the number of calories purchased.

Proposition 37 sought a mandatory warning label for genetically modified foods, labelling that promotes awareness and transparency. It would have had a significant impact because buying "organic, non GE or non GMO" carries a price premium and at the higher end of the market consumers willing to pay the difference make it a point to go where they can buy those goods. It's a matter of trust, verification and access. There has been plenty of discussion about ensuring informed choice, but why does this matter? Well, food and the food industry are increasingly complex. Claire Herminjard is the cofounder of Mindful Meats, the first U.S. Certified Organic, non GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) Verified Beef. She points out that the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has been deregulating genetically engineered seeds and plants, 40 in the past few years, and it's a troubling trend. Deregulating more and more genetically engineered crops makes it harder for companies to monitor their supply chains and for the consumer few food choices at the market. Despite Proposition 37 not being passed, Ms. Herminjard is optimistic. She explains:

47% of California's voters were in favor of a measure that has been criticized not only by staunch opponents, but also by those in favor of GMO regulation who opposed 37 for various reasons. The "No on 37" campaign spent a whopping $46.5 million dollars running false TV ads and sending out questionable mailers, while the Yes on 37 campaign was largely grassroots and led by concerned citizens, spending only $8.9 million. That is a Definite Victory.

Let's hope there is another chance to get this right.