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Oregonians Vote on Labeling Proposal

posted on November 1, 2002

The Europeans do it. So do the Japanese. Even some African nations accepting U.S. food aid do it. All insist on labels identifying foods grown with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

The labeling demand is problematic for producers and merchandisers in the U.S., where the labels are NOT required. Export prospects have been dampened and a delivery system guaranteeing segregated crops is costly.

So what's the future for domestic labeling? We may soon know. The first state to enact a bottle law and organic food standards now may be the first to present its consumers with GMO labels on food packaging. Sid Sprecher explains.


Oregonians Vote on Labeling Proposal

Food is as much a part of Oregon culture as rain, technology, or progressive, some say quirky, politics. Independents run well in the state. Citizens vote by mail and the ballots typically address a spectrum of issues that were placed there by citizen initiative.

Currently one of the highest profile issues confronting Oregon voters is Measure 27, a proposal to require all food, raw or processed, containing as little as 1-tenth of one percent of genetically modified ingredients to be labeled. If enacted, Oregon would be the first state to require G-M-O labeling.

>The initiative process has evolved into almost third party status where much of its leadership each election cycle generates a new batch of issues, petitions voters to place it on ballots and then launches campaigns to enact the measures. The campaigns, of course, provoke counter campaigns, and both cost money. In a state known for its embrace of green policies, politics may be its most renewable industry.

A month ago Measure 27 looked like it was on its way to victory. A poll conducted for the Portland Oregonian reported 58 percent of probable voters favored the measure while 36 percent opposed it, and notably only 5 percent said they were undecided about the issue.

Pacing soundbite soundbite from Forum: "Speaking in favor of Measure 27, Louis Bouchard. She is a volunteer with the group Oregon Concerned Citizens for Safe Food. Ms Bouchard".

Measure 27's grassroots campaign seemed to be marching to victory. Its simple pitch is consumers need to know what's in their food quickly gained traction. Indeed, the proposition hardly seemed any more ambitious or radical than other measures discussed at forums like this. But, measure 27 quickly attracted some serious and moneyed opposition.

Much of the now more than 5 million dollars financing the "No on 27" campaign is from food and biotech companies funneling funds through Belgium-based CropLife International. The industry alliance contains some of the world's largest biotech companies, including Monsanto, owner of 90 percent of the biotech seed products employed by the world's farmers. Agriculture is prominent in the opposition's pitch to Oregon voters to vote against Measure 27.

Pacing sound bite from campaign commercial: " It's a complex misleading labeling scheme which no other state requires."

Befitting its name, The Coalition Against the Costly Labeling Law, argues the expense of administering it would be enormous and economically devastating. Pat McCormick is the Oregon coordinator of the campaign against Measure 27.

Pat McCormick, The Coalition Against The Costly Labeling Law: " from a consumer's standpoint the costs relate to the system of trying to segregate and document crops from the seed source to where they're sold or served. And that separate system, the economic analysis that the campaign had done showed the cost of about $550 for an average family of four in Oregon."

Supporters of the measure insist the cost to consumers will be far less, closer to 71 cents. They argue the focus on cost by the opposition obfuscates the real financial threat – the one to the bottom lines of biotech companies.

Brian Rohter is CEO of New Seasons Markets a popular and growing chain of four Portland area natural food stores.

Brian Rohter: "... I really just don't believe it. I think that the opposition is concerned that if people have this information they will choose not to buy the product. That is what their concern is and they've made huge, huge investments in developing these products. They've been pretty much shut down in the EU and they don't want to see it happen here and so I think that's their motivation."

But, opponents of 27 are finding ample ammunition to defeat the measure. They cite language that appears to define traditional cross breeding techniques as genetic engineering. And they argue the labeling requirements are simply too broad, extending into restaurants and well upstream of the checkout counter.

>>>Pat McCormick: "You'd have a situation where chicken in Arkansas lays an egg that ends up in an angel food cake mix in Oregon. If that chicken had ever eaten genetically engineered feed, the cake mix in Oregon would require as label and there's no way you can test for that by tracking. You're going to have to have documentation systems that would know the health history and the diet history of that chicken."

Buttressing the opposition is the Food and Drug Administration. In a letter to Oregon's Governor, the agency said it considers genetically engineered foods to be "as safe as their counterparts", and the ballot measure to be both unnecessary and contrary to FDA guidelines.

It would appear the campaign against the measure is reversing public sentiment. A poll released last week by one of Portland's television stations reveals 65 percent of likely voters now oppose labeling, 27 percent favor it and just 8 percent are undecided.

>Even the measure's supporters acknowledge the flaws in its language. It was adapted from a similar proposal pushed by the Natural Law party in Colorado. Donna Harris, along with Kate Lord, launched the initiative. Harris insists concerns over breeding techniques or the inclusion of restaurants are not serious deterrents to passage of the measure.

Donna Harris: And both Kate and I are definitely willing to go to the legislature once this passes and have them amend the ballot measure, or the law to state it excludes restaurants because that was never our intention from the beginning."

Under the state's initiative process, Voters can set policies into motion and expect the legislature make them run on time. The question this time is whether enough are on board. For m/m I'm ss


Tags: crops genetic engineering news Oregon voters