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Monsanto spends BIG to battle food labeling effort

(Friday, Sept. 20, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

Bill Lambrecht, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 09/19/02: WASHINGTON - Warning of a "biotech police force," an industry alliance is waging a multimillion-dollar campaign to defeat an Oregon ballot proposition to require labeling of genetically modified food.

St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. and its allies in the biotech and food industries have set a spending target of $6 million for the campaign against the labeling initiative, according to industry sources. That's 40 times the $150,000 the pro-labeling forces say they will spend.

The proposition is the first labeling measure to appear on a state ballot. But it might not be the last, which is an unappetizing prospect for the food and biotech industries, which say labeling would mean higher food bills for consumers. At least 70 percent of processed food on U.S. grocery shelves contains engineered ingredients.

Supporters of labeling say the industry is exaggerating the costs and that, in any case, consumers want to know what's in the food they buy.

The labeling of food with genetically modified ingredients has been a contentious issue around the world, with several countries mandating labels at the insistence of environmental and consumer advocates. That hasn't happened in the United States, where the Food and Drug Administration says engineered food is no different than conventional food and so needs no labels that reveal details of production.

Far-reaching plan

In Oregon, Measure 27 would require that the packaging of any food or drink that contains as little as 0.1 percent of genetically modified ingredients contain information telling consumers the nature of the altered contents.

For instance, if corn chips were produced from plants engineered with a bacteria to ward off insects, consumers would have to receive such information.

Oregon's far-reaching proposal also calls for labeling of food prepared with genetically engineered enzymes - including some cheese products - and meat and dairy products from livestock fed genetically modified grains.

The proposition was conceived by Donna Harris, a Portland woman who said she became intrigued while listening to a radio report about experiments in which fish genes were engineered into tomatoes.

"I said I'm going to check this out for myself. So I went to the grocery store, and there wasn't one label that identified genetically modified ingredients in food," she recalled.

Now that she and other labeling supporters have obtained the necessary 66,000 signatures to place the initiative on the ballot, Harris said, she believes her measure can win because of people's demand to know what's in their food.

"As a consumer, we should have a choice in the food we eat," she said. "Gathering signatures, I had people tell me that they are less concerned about moving DNA around than about not being allowed to know about it."

European nations, Japan and Australia are among countries that have imposed labeling. In Russia, the latest country to mandate labels, a rule that went into effect this month requires food products with more than 5 percent of genetically modified ingredients to say so on food packaging.

The European Parliament voted in July to lower the labeling threshold in member countries from 1 percent to 0.5 percent - still five times higher than the threshhold Oregon voters will decide on.

Industry coalition

The name of the industry alliance formed to defeat the measure points to its main argument in the coming debate: The Coalition Against the Costly Labeling Law.

Citing a study by a consultant it hired, the coalition argues that a labeling law would cost an average Oregon family about $550 a year, primarily because of the need to set up a system for inspecting, tracking and segregating food.

"Consumers across the country need to see that the end result of such measures as the Oregon initiative would be added costs to the consumer," said Gene Grabowski, spokesman in Washington for the Grocery Manufacturers of America and a strategist in the anti-labeling effort.

Labeling proponents respond that countries that have moved to labeling have experienced minimal costs.

The anti-labeling coalition's Web site asserts that Oregon's Agriculture Department would be turned into "the biotech police" for the food industry because of the need to inspect food coming into the state.

Pat McCormick, an Oregon political consultant who is directing the anti-labeling campaign, said that his coalition must combat a reflexive desire by people to have more information about what they eat.

"You can deal with this in the abstract but, in fact, people are voting on a very specific set of laws and regulations that get put in place. It's in those details that public support erodes quickly," he said.

Buoyed by money from biotech companies, the anti-labeling coalition intends to begin running television ads early next month. It expects substantial contributions from Monsanto, a biotech pioneer that licenses more than 90 percent of the world's main genetically modified products.

Monsanto spokeswoman Shannon Troughton said her company would be supporting the anti-labeling campaign both through the coalition and through CropLife International, an industry alliance that includes the worlds' biggest biotech companies.

"The general feeling is that the measure, if passed, would create a new set of bureaucratic rules and regulations and provide meaningless information at a considerable cost to consumers," she said.

Mel's kitchen

The anti-labeling coalition also argues on the Internet that the labeling plan "is being promoted by a small group of organic food companies that would benefit financially if consumers can be scared into buying their products."

That is a direct reference to Mel Bankoff, an organic food pioneer and founder of Emerald Valley Kitchen in Eugene, who has contributed $50,000 to support the labeling initiative. Bankoff recently sold his company, which averaged about $4 million annually in revenues.

"I have to crack up when I hear them talk about me. I'm just a small food manufacturer who's concerned about this issue," he said, pointing to an array of far larger companies on the opposite side of the issue.

Bankoff said that became involved because "the food system has been under siege in a very stealthy way. I'm very concerned about control of the world's food supply by a few large corporations that don't have the most glorious history. I'm also a strong supporter of consumer rights."

Steve Ellis, a professor at Willamette University, in Salem, Ore., and the author of the book "Democratic Delusions: The Initiative Process in America," said that it is too early to tell how the labeling initiative will fare.

"While money can't win you an initiative election, a lot of money spent on the opposing side tends to confuse the issue and prompt people to vote no. Whether it will shift far enough to defeat this issue, we don't yet have enough voter opinions to know," he said.

Reporter Bill Lambrecht:\ E-mail: blambrecht@post-dispatch.com\ Phone: 202-298-6880

See the story at: http://home.post-dispatch.com/channel/pdweb.nsf/cd0498e845b8afc485256a0f005f2a34/86256a0e0068fe5086256c39003c7b1f?OpenDocument