Voters in Oregon will decide next month whether food that is genetically modified should carry a label. Henry Sessions reports the food industry is waging a concerted campaign against the measure in the first real U.S. battle over GM labeling.
CURWOOD: Oregon could become the first state in the United States to require labels on genetically engineered food. Ballot Measure 27 will put the matter to voters in November. The campaign has been intense, with biotechnology and food companies spending millions of dollars on advertising. Henry Sessions has our report.
SESSIONS: Donna Harris is a busy mom. At a Portland café on a brief break from the campaign, she says she got the idea for Measure 27 when she had her second child two years ago. She wanted to avoid foods with genetically engineered materials.
[SOUND OF BUSY CAFÉ]
HARRIS: We called formula companies. We called cereal companies. Nobody could give us an answer. They gave us a scripted message that was, may or may not contain genetically engineered food. If it does, it’s an insignificant amount, and it falls under FDA guidelines.
SESSIONS: Harris says Measure 27 is designed to address that lack of information. It would require growers, processors and distributors to label not only genetically engineered potatoes or fish, but any food contained GE ingredients, such as corn syrup or cake mix.
HARRIS: The one thing that was really important to me was, for example, if a tomato contained flounder DNA, that that be on there. And I think that’s important. I have a lot of friends who are vegetarians. They want to know that they are getting lettuce, and not lettuce with rat DNA in it, or broccoli with rat DNA, or tomatoes with flounder DNA.
SESSIONS: GE food labeling isn’t a new idea. The European Union requires it, as does Japan and several other countries. And despite a starving population, the southern African nation of Zambia is refusing to accept shipments of genetically modified corn. But in Oregon, the idea of labeling GE foods is leaving a bad taste in the mouths of some food processors, farmers and others.
MCCORMICK: The way it’s written, it goes well beyond what seems like any kind of a reasonable proposal. It means that virtually all the foods that we see in stores is going to have labels on it.
SESSIONS: Pat McCormick is a Portland lobbyist representing a food industry group calling itself the Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Initiative. They’ve recently gotten an infusion of money from outside the state.
MCCORMICK: The Food and Drug Administration has made it absolutely clear that these foods are no different and just as safe as their conventionally bred counterparts, and there’s no reason to separately label them. In fact, putting labels on them would be misinterpreted by consumers as a warning when there is no reason in the Food and Drug Administration’s mind to provide any warning since they believe these foods to be safe.
SESSIONS: McCormack points out that new national organic standards, which take effect later this month, already ban GE ingredients. So, consumers can avoid GE foods by buying organic. Sitting on the sidelines of this campaign are Oregon’s big natural foods retailers. Wild Oats Markets, with more than 100 stores in two dozen states, owns 10 stores in Oregon. On bulletin boards and in publications, Wild Oats has been at the forefront in informing customers in the debate over GE foods.
[SOUND OF CRINKLING PASTA PACKAGE]
SESSIONS: Mark Cockroft, regional marketing manager, pulls a bag of Wild Oats pasta off the shelf and points out that for their house brand, Wild Oats has switched to suppliers who don’t use genetically engineered ingredients. But Cockroft says Oregon’s labeling initiative poses a problem for a national company like his.
COCKROFT: It’s a controversial issue, and there’s not a lot of concrete scientific evidence out there. And really, in the end, our position comes down to the right of the customer to make an informed choice. However, on this matter, we really support a national label law, not a state’s label law.
SESSIONS: No polling numbers have yet been released on the measure, but independent political analyst Jim Moore says the initiative might well strike a chord with Oregon’s notoriously independent voters.
MOORE: If we see the big food companies, if we see, for instance, ads by ConAgra, or Archer Daniels Midland, or things like that coming in, there’s a real chance Oregonians can say, "You know, we aren’t quite sure about this GMO thing, but we’re not going to have those big people from Nebraska or Colorado telling us what to do."
SESSIONS: If Measure 27 passes, it wouldn’t be the first time Oregon has gone its own way. Among many other firsts, voters here passed the nation’s first bottle deposit and land use planning laws in the 1970s.
For Living on Earth, I’m Henry Sessions in Portland, Oregon.
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