California's Proposition 37 and WTO Agreements

Recently, I attended the annual American Agricultural Law Association (AALA) Conference in Nashville, TN. A topic on many of the attendees’ minds was California’s Proposition 37 or “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.” A previous discussion of Proposition 37 can be found here.

If passed in November, the voter initiative would require certain raw and processed foods that have or may have been “entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering” to be labeled as such. In addition, Subsection 110809.1 provides that if a food is “genetically engineered” or “processed” as those terms are defined under the initiative, the food’s label may not, in California, state or imply that the food is “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” “all natural,” or use any words of similar import that might mislead any consumer.

As election day nears, the debate over Proposition 37 has reached fever pitch. Proponents of the initiative urge that consumers are entitled to make informed choices about the foods they purchase. On the other hand, opponents argue that the initiative would be burdensome on both producers and retailers and would result in excessive litigation.

While attending the AALA Conference, I had the pleasure of chatting with Drew Kershen, the Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law (Emeritus) at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. Professor Kershen recently published an article on a unique and important issue involving California’s Proposition 37. The article addresses whether Proposition 37 complies with World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreements and discusses the compatibility between the two.

In analyzing the relationship between Proposition 37 and WTO Agreements, more specifically the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (the SPS Agreement) and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (the TBT Agreement), Professor Kershen concludes that the initiative “raises significant and difficult questions about whether it complies with the SPS Agreement or the TBT Agreement.” As a result, he notes that Proposition 37 can be challenged by member states to the WTO Agreements as well as the United States as a violation of WTO Agreements. However, it remains unclear as to whether those parties will act against Proposition 37.

Professor Kershen’s essay is a reduced version of a previously published article: “Would State-Mandate Labels for Biotech Foods Violate World Trade Agreements?,” Critical Legal Issues WORKING PAPER No. 181 (Wash. Lgl. Fndt., Sept. 2012), available at

Stoel Rives attorneys continue to track the progress of Proposition 37 in California. Stay tuned for more updates as election day approaches.

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