Minnesota's sizable food and agriculture industry can rest easier this week after California voters rejected a controversial referendum that would have required labels on genetically modified foods.

The food industry's victory came after pouring tens of millions of dollars into advertisements -- primarily on TV -- against the mandate. Labeling opponents raised about $46 million, or five times as much money as pro-labeling forces.

"Forty-six million buys an awful lot of confusion and misunderstanding," said Mark Kastel, co-director of the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based organic industry watchdog. "There was a very well-funded misinformation campaign."

But Reid MacDonald, CEO of Faribault Foods Inc., said that while lots of money was, indeed, spent on advertising, it provided consumers with correct information on labeling's drawbacks.

"The advertising was quite well done," MacDonald said. "Food companies are very good at advertising, and that's what happened here."

Faribault Foods, known for its Kuner's beans and Butter Kernel vegetables, was one of five Minnesota companies that contributed to the anti-labeling initiative.

General Mills Inc. was the largest Minnesota contributor, giving $1.23 million, according to MapLight, a nonpartisan research outfit. Hormel Foods Corp. was next at $467,900, then Cargill Inc. at $238,888, Land O'Lakes Inc. at $153,300 and Faribault Foods at $76,000.

St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. was the biggest financial force against Proposition 37, contributing about $8 million, MapLight said.

When the votes were counted, 53 percent of Californians were against Proposition 37, which would have required companies to label many foods derived from genetically engineered (GE) crops. Forty-seven percent voted for labeling.

Proposition 37 would have made California the first U.S. state to require GE labeling. The vote was closely watched by agribusiness and the food industry, as California is often a bellwether for the rest of the nation.

"The strategy of the food companies was 'if you could have a pretty solid win in California, you could discourage [GE labeling initiatives] elsewhere,'" MacDonald said.

Proposition 37's proponents say consumers have the right to know if GE-derived ingredients are in their food. The food industry claims the measure would be costly and unnecessary.

Genetically engineered crops have been around since the 1990s and are now commonplace. Around 90 percent of the nation's corn, soybeans and sugar beats are grown from GE seeds.

But GE-derived foods remain a lightning rod for some consumer groups and scientists who say that research is lacking on their long-term health effects. The food and ag industries counter that most scientists back the safety of GE-derived foods, as do regulators.

"We, among others, worried that labels would have misled consumers into believing genetically modified foods were unsafe," said Lori Johnson, a Cargill spokeswoman.

Change of opinion

California's labeling initiative at first had strong support.

A Sept. 17 USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found that 61 percent of Californians favored Proposition 37 and 25 percent opposed it. By Oct. 25, the proponents' edge had shrunk to 44 percent to 42 percent. A different poll at October's end showed labeling opponents with the upper hand.

In between those polls came an ad barrage from the agriculture and food industry.

Ronnie Cummins, head of the Organic Consumers Association, said a "labeling raises costs" message from industry had an effect. Polling done by Prop 37 supporters just prior to the vote continued to show that consumers highly favor labeling -- some just didn't want to pay for it, he said.

The Finland, Minn.-based Organic Consumers Association was one of the biggest monetary supporters of the labeling initiative, raising about $1 million, mostly in $50 to $100 donations from its members. Cummins said the labeling fight will go on, with Washington state the target for a 2013 referendum.

Both Cummins and Kastel said the California battle could have a lasting effect on General Mills, Kellogg, Coca-Cola and other food companies that own organic brands, but that financially backed a "no" vote on Proposition 37.

General Mills owns the Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen organic brands, and organic consumers tend to be big proponents of all sorts of labeling. "I think they have endangered their [organic] brands' value," said Cornucopia's Kastel of General Mills and other firms.

General Mills declined to comment for this article.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003