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Oregon GMO label defeat spells uphill battle ahead, but supporters promise to renew their efforts

(Thursday, Nov. 7, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- Deborah Cohen and Carey Gillam, Reuters: The overwhelming defeat of an Oregon measure on Tuesday that would have required labeling of genetically modified foods dealt a sharp blow to consumer groups battling the biotech movement.

A coalition of corporate giants including chemical makers Monsanto Co. <MON.N> and DuPont Co. <DD.N> and food producers like General Mills Inc. <GIS.N> and H.J. Heinz <HNZ.N> spent some $5.5 million to defeat the measure in the state, which is often at the forefront of progressive issues.

Supporters of the initiative said on Wednesday they had formed a national group to fight corporations opposed to labeling, but industry watchers said the issue faces an uphill battle in the United States, where it has been slow to gain momentum.

"Consumers have never been energized on this issue," said Art Jaeger, a spokesman for Consumer Federation of America, which supports labeling efforts. "These battles are all vigorously opposed by a fairly deep-pocket food industry."

More than 70 percent of Oregon's voters rejected the broadly worded initiative, Ballot Measure 27, which would have required all processed foods sold in the state containing gene-spliced ingredients such as corn, wheat and soy, and even milk produced by cows eating those feeds, to be identified on product packaging.

Corporate opponents of mandatory labeling attacked the law on the basis that more than 70 percent of the food found on grocery store shelves already contains some genetically modified material. Labeling every candy bar, bag of chips or jar of mayonnaise produced with gene-spliced crops would cost millions of dollars in compliance and regulation, they said.

"This measure goes above and beyond anything we've seen before on labeling requirements," said Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, whose members include U.S. food companies and groceries. "When put to the test, consumers reject mandatory labeling."

A more reasonable approach, opponents said, is choosing foods that don't contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs -- a choice they believe is now available to U.S. consumers through new federal labeling requirements on organic foods that took effect last month.

"If you couldn't get something like this to have at least some life in a state like Oregon, there's really little chance that it will have the chance to go far any place else," said Pat McCormick, whose group, Coalition Against the Costly Labeling Law, ran the opposition to the Oregon measure on behalf of major companies.


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, one of the regulatory agencies that oversee GMO foods, criticized the proposed law last month, saying biotech crops on the market have been found to be safe.

In a letter to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, FDA Deputy Commissioner Lester Crawford said the law if passed could "impermissibly interfere" with marketing by the food industry and violate rules governing interstate commerce.

Genetic modification of plants, a rapidly increasing practice in the last decade, involves extracting a gene from the DNA of a plant or animal and transferring it to another to create a desirable trait such as resistance to disease.

Currently the bulk of the GMO plants grown in the United States have been modified to resist herbicide. Soybeans are the largest GMO crop, with more than 75 percent of this year's U.S. crop genetically modified.

Despite governmental and scientific assurances that GMO foods on the market pose no risk, critics say the potential for health and environmental problems exists.

"They are causing contamination and cross-pollination problems in agriculture that may have serious economic impact for farmers," said Katherine DiMatteo, who heads the Organic Trade Association, a group that represents organic food makers.

Americans have been slow to take up the GMO debate, which has raged across Europe and elsewhere for several years. Some 19 countries now require labeling for GMOs.

Major food makers like PepsiCo <PEP.N> and Sara Lee Corp. <SLE.N> have faced shareholder votes seeking bans on the use of GMO foods in their products. But so far, these initiatives have been overwhelming defeated.

Activists in a handful of states, including California, Washington and Colorado, have tried to pass labeling laws similar to the Oregon proposal, but with no luck.

Yet far from being discouraged, the Oregon grassroots group that pushed the labeling initiative said the battle would go on. It has founded a national organization, "Labeling for US," to work with other states for mandatory labeling.

"A lot of people do want labeling but they want it to be consistent across the U.S.," said Donna Harris, who headed the Oregon campaign.

Leaders of Oregon GM labeling plan promise to bring issue back in 2004

PORTLAND, OREGON - AP : Oregon voters overwhelmingly rejected an initiative to make the state the first in the country to require labeling of genetically modified foods.

Only 27 percent of Oregon voters supported the voter-sponsored initiative on Tuesday's ballot, compared with 73 percent who voted against it, according to results from 61 percent of precincts in the northwestern state.

``One of the things we said from the beginning was the more people know about it, the less they like it,'' said Pat McCormick, a public relations executive in charge of a $5 million media campaign funded by the biotechnology industry against the proposal. ``We knew if we could provide them that basic information, it would be much less likely they would support the measure.''

Donna Harris, who led the campaign to put the initiative on the ballot, said she would bring the issue back again in 2004.

``The opposition has been very good teachers,'' she said. ``We're definitely going to use what we learned when we file the next initiative,'' said Harris, a mother of two and former hospital secretary whose desire to find a baby formula free of genetically altered ingredients led to the campaign.

Opponents raised more than $5.2 million from companies that manufacture genetically engineered food and seed, such as Monsanto, DuPont and Kraft, and launched a media campaign.

Supporters scraped together less than $200,000 and have been all but absent from the airwaves.

Early public support for the measure diminished rapidly as the opposition organized by the Grocery Manufacturers of America broadcast TV ads featuring a grocer drowning in red tape, a farmer fearful about the future, and a doctor assuring people genetically engineered foods are safe.

Around the world, 19 countries require such labeling, and the European Union has banned the sale of any new engineered products since 1988. The EU is expected to lift the ban later this year, but may require labeling.

In United States, such labeling is not required. About a dozen varieties of soy beans, corn and tomatoes genetically altered to resist pests, frost and weed killers have been approved for human consumption and are common ingredients in processed food.

Kathleen Merrigan, director of Tufts University's Agriculture, Food and Environment Program, said the labeling trend is growing along with consumer demand for organic foods.

``Look at the organic experience as the tip of the iceberg,'' Merrigan said.