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Prop 37: Safer food or invitation for lawsuits?

Prop 37: The California ballot initiative would require genetically modified food to be labeled. But critics say Prop 37 invites lawsuits against food producers and grocery stores.

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A billboard for Prop 37 in Inglewood, Calif. Proposition 37 would require labeling on all food made with genetically modified ingredients. It also would prohibit labeling or advertising such food as "natural."

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

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Supporters of a ballot proposal to label cereals, sodas and other products containing genetically modified ingredients say their effort is about empowering consumers who deserve to know what's in their food.

Legal scholars say the right to know contained in Proposition 37 also comes with the right to sue.

The initiative on Tuesday's ballot is worded in such a way that it could invite lawsuits against food producers and grocery stores, experts say. Plaintiffs, including individual consumers, could sue for an injunction to halt mislabeled goods without having to show they were somehow harmed or deceived. In class-action lawsuits, the prevailing side could win damage awards and recoup attorney's fees and other costs.

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If Proposition 37 passes and survives on appeal, "you're looking at full employment for lawyers without a doubt," said law professor David Levine at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, and who is not affiliated with either campaign.

The initiative's backers, which include consumer advocates and the organic food industry, have countered the notion that passage would lead to endless litigation and devoted a section on their website to this point. Supporters say there will be no reason for lawyers to act if companies follow the labeling rules and that any class-action claim would be dismissed if the defendants fixed the labels.

"There's not much in it for the trial lawyers," said Joe Sandler, legal advisor for the California Right to Know campaign.

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