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Dr. Bronner

Perhaps it’s no surprise that a company famous for filling every available inch of its product labels with words favors adding more words to labels. The inevitable next step: Creating labels that campaign for more labeling.

Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps is one of the biggest donors supporting Washington state’s proposition 522, which would require food makers to label products that might contain genetically modified ingredients. Now Dr. Bronner has created a special label for its quart-sized soaps, promoting Prop 522.

I’ve always loved Dr. Bronner’s soap. It’s the smell of my people: the clean hippies, as opposed to the dirty kind. As a kid, I practiced reading on those labels, rotating the bottle to follow the text as my toes pruned in the bath. The labels look like something you might find on a bottle of laudanum-based snake oil, or in a 19th century Farmers Almanac advertisement, back in the days before anyone realized that pictures (and feelings) moved buyers more than words. The text is randomly capitalized, peppered with exclamation marks, and suffused with the rhythms of prophetic testimony. Here’s an example:

Absolute cleanliness is Godliness! Who else but God gave man Love that can spark mere dust to life! Poetry, uniting All-One! All brave! All life! Who else but God! “Listen Children Eternal Father Eternally One!” Einstein, 1939, after Nazis & Commies united, proposed spacebombs that destroy all, unless we finally teach the Moral ABC’s the real Rabbi Hillel taught Jesus to unite all in All-One-God-Faith. As teach astronomers Abraham-Israel-Moses-Buddha-Hillel-Jesus-Spinoza-Paine-Sagan & Mohammed, inspired every 76 years, 6000 years by the Messenger of God’s Law, the sign of the Messiah, Halley’s Comet: “WE’RE ALL ONE OR NONE!” “THERE IS NO GOD BUT GOD!” “TEACH LOVE THY ENEMY!” “LISTEN CHILDREN ETERNAL FATHER ETERNALLY ONE!” Israel-Moses-Buddha-Jesus-Mohammed: ONE! ALL ONE!

The new, pro-labeling label is less crazy, and way less fun. Sadly, there are no references to the moral ABCs. And I, for one, would be more convinced if an argument ended, not with “YES on 522,” but instead: Unite children! All one or none! YES on 522! The One God Faith Law, Eternally One!

Emanuel Bronner, according to the company, emigrated from Germany in 1929, escaped from a mental asylum outside Chicago in the 1940s and moved to California (as one does). Bronner died in 1997 and his family now runs the business. Here he is in the 2006 movie, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox:

The main argument I hear against labeling goes like this: Labels won’t work because the food system is suffused with GM plant derivatives, and every non-organic food will just get a “may contain” notice on its package. In the end, people who don’t want GM food will end up buying organic, as they do now.

Even if that’s the case, I’m not convinced it would really hurt anyone. Sure, there would be some costs to administer the law — about $1.5 million a year every two years [PDF] — and food prices might go up as companies created separate supply chains for non-GM ingredients. But perhaps it’s worth the money. I’ll look closely at the pros and cons of labeling soon — before Nov. 5, I promise.

Correction: This post originally misstated the estimated costs the labeling initiative might impose.