Thursday, Nov. 7, 2002,
Reuters via CropChoice News
By 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
"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.
Closing the barn door
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
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,''