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Will the defeat of Prop 37 lead to national food labeling push?

A poster in support of Prop 37. (Nuclear Winter/flickr)

California voters defeated Proposition 37 [PDF] on Tuesday night, the ballot measure that would have required labels to indicate the presence of genetically modified foods. At the polls, 53 percent of Californians voted against the proposition, while 47 percent voted for it. 

Prop 37's failure may not come as a major surprise given that its opponents -- food industry giants like Monsanto, Kraft and Dow AgroSciences -- spent $46 million to defeat the measure. Monsanto, which is based in Creve Coeur, Mo., donated the most -- $8 million, or 18 percent of all funds -- towards a "No on 37" campaign. "No on 37" ran radio and television ads that stated genetically-modified foods were safe and voting "Yes" on the measure would increase a family's grocery bill by up to $400 a month. 

"Californians have decided that Proposition 37 is not in their best interests," said Monsanto spokesman Tom Helscher. "Consumers have many choices and can select the products they prefer. We expect the food industry to continue meeting the needs of their customers through their product offerings and with truthful and non-misleading labeling.  FDA (Food and Drug Administration) labeling guidance remains in place, which requires labeling of material differences in foods, whether it be in composition, nutrition or safety."

Supporters of Prop 37 meanwhile raised roughly $9 million. The "Yes on Prop 37" campaign argued that new labels would cost nothing and would let consumers know what was in their food. Celebrities including James Franco, Marisa Tomei and Danny DeVito participated in a series of campaign videos urging Californians to vote "Yes."

In the weeks leading up to the election, other celebrities, food writers and scientists including Charlie Sheen, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman and Belinda Martineau also threw their support behind the campaign on Twitter and in magazine and newspaper pieces. They also got behind a Mythbuster video that pushed for the passage of the measure.

With the defeat of Prop 37,  supporters like Columbia, Mo. dietitian Melinda Hemmelgarn, are thinking about what's next in the GMO labeling debate. For her, that's passing a national food labeling law. Hammelgarn,who hosts a local radio show called Food Sleuth,  argues that safety testing of GMO foods is not adequate, there's no scientific consensus that GMOs are not harmful, and consumers have the right to know what's in their food.

"People in California have just as much of a right to know as people in Missouri. Our plan is to educate more people about what’s at stake," Hemmelgarn said on Wednesday morning. "And as consumers, we should ask 'Why would people not want us to know what’s in our food?' So label 'em. If their food is safe, show me. Prove it."

Hemmelgarn added that the measure's defeat has also left her with questions, like why the food industry would not want consumers to know if GMO ingredients are in their foods if genetically engineered foods are safe, and why so much money was spent on keeping American consumers in the dark.