GMO Labeling

Posted on Tue, Aug. 13, 2002

Oregon Targets Altered Foods
By Lisa M. Krieger
Mercury News
Oregon is braced for a food fight this fall -- and California is likely to be next.

Frustrated by legislators' failure to label genetically modified (GM) foods so that consumers know what they are eating, anti-biotech activists are taking their agenda directly to the public via the ballot box. Oregon voters will decide on labeling GM foods in their state this autumn, and a similar campaign is planned for California.

The decision in Oregon has the potential to affect much of the food on U.S. grocery store shelves -- and some segments of California agriculture. Two-thirds of all packaged foods sold in the United States today contain at least one ingredient from genetically modified crops. Many of California's farm products -- such as milk and meat -- would fall under the broad scope of the Oregon measure.

Such labels are already required in some other countries, and advocates for GM labeling say U.S. consumers deserve the same information. But they face a tough fight from agriculture interests, the grocery industry and scientists, who say the campaign is based more on fear than research.

"We all eat. And we all have opinions about what we eat,'' said Ken Masterton of Bolinas, who has directed six major environmental and public health initiatives in California and sees the GM food labeling question looming on the horizon here.

"So let's put the issue on the ballot and let people decide,'' Masterton said. He donated $5,000 to the Oregon initiative effort, as did groups in Sacramento, Davis, Ukiah and Sebastopol.

Oregon is the first state to have such an initiative on the ballot. Although Ballot Measure 27 has no authority outside Oregon, its influence would be vast, because most foods sold in the state are grown or processed elsewhere.

The big three crops that come from genetically altered seed are corn, soybeans and canola oil -- the sources of ingredients in starches, sweeteners, syrups and oils.

Even foods not sold in Oregon but delivered to the port of Portland for distribution throughout the northwestern United States would need labeling.

Activists face mighty opposition from agricultural, grocery and business interests, which fear a nationwide patchwork of state labeling laws that are based on panic, not science. America has the safest, most plentiful and cheapest food in the world, they say, in large part thanks to biotechnology. They view the GM labeling campaign as a strategy to stop all food biotech by running up its costs.

"Are we going to label darn near everything on all grocery shelves? If so, how does this serve the consumer?'' asked Bob Krauter, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau.

Behind Measure 27

Oregon's Ballot Measure 27 won support on a wave of suspicion that neither government nor industry was leveling with people about the health hazards of GM foods. Drafted by a South Portland mother of two, it has been endorsed by organic farmers, food co-ops and consumer rights groups -- some of them far from Oregon.

Public opinion has shifted because of highly publicized regulatory errors, including last year's mistake that allowed the unapproved ``Starlink'' GM corn to be used in taco shells. A survey by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that 54 percent of Americans say they have heard nothing or very little about GM foods. Nonetheless, 58 percent said they oppose modified ingredients in the food supply -- and 75 percent want to know whether their food has such ingredients.

Legislation to label GM food has stalled in Congress. While the Food and Drug Administration requires disclosure of a food's ingredients and nutritional value, it does not require a label to say whether a gene has been inserted to make it do newfangled things, like fight off pests or tolerate herbicides that kill weeds. GM labels are voluntary, not mandatory.

Oregon activists hope their effort will influence consumers to avoid GM foods, causing groceries to pull products from store shelves -- and eventually, purging the state of all GM ingredients.

Casting a wide net

The language of the Oregon initiative is so broad that many, perhaps most, foods would carry labels. This is because it requires a label on any food that uses a GM-based agent in its processing -- even if that agent doesn't end up in the final product.

So it would include most of California's hard cheeses, simply because they are made with a genetically modified yeast, rather than enzymes from calves' stomachs. It could extend to all dairy products and meats, because vaccinations or feed used in raising farm animals may contain bioengineered components.

Pat McCormick, who leads the Coalition Against the Costly Label Law, a food industry group fighting the Oregon initiative, said the labeling requirement would affect the entire country.

"If a chicken in Arkansas eats any GM corn in its feed, and then lays eggs, and its eggs are powdered and then used in a cake mix in Oregon -- that cake mix will require a label, even though the feed never ended up in the cake mix,'' he said. "The breadth of the application of this is staggering.''

Opponents raise other objections.

"A label implies a risk that does not exist,'' Krauter said. The government already rigorously tests and reviews all foods to ensure safety, he said.

Modern biotechnology provides food producers with the latest tools in the search for better, more healthful foods, as well as foods that are resistant to certain pests and tolerant to environmental stresses such as drought, said Martina McGloughlin, director of the biotechnology program at the University of California-Davis.

"This could prevent work from going forward that would improve its quality, enhance its nutritional value and protect against post-harvest losses,'' she said.

Enforcement would be tough because of the complexity of tracing a single GM ingredient from the farm to the fork, McCormick said.

"The label doesn't tell the consumer anything specific,'' he said. "It doesn't tell you what within the food is genetically engineered, how much, or if it was just made with something that was genetically engineered.''

Is California next?

Undaunted by the criticism, activists said that campaigns are ready to go in several other states if the Oregon effort is successful, including California, Colorado, Washington and North Carolina.

"This is a technology that has burst upon the scene and become part of our lives,'' Masterton said. "But there's never been a public debate whether it is a good thing -- and what safeguards should or should not be put in place.''

Getting a version of the Oregon initiative on the California ballot could be a tougher sell, advocates concede. The larger size of the state means that more signatures are required for ballot initiatives, and campaign costs are greater.

But anti-GM food activist Parker Bell of the group Oregon Concerned Citizens for Safe Foods said, "We just have to do a little fundraising. People are set up all over California, ready to go.''

"There is the ways and means in California right now to make this happen,'' he said.

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at or (408) 920-5565.

2002 mercurynews and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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