Oregon and the GM labelling ballot
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- Date: Sun, 10 Nov 2002 16:15:35 -0800 (PST)
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November 10, 2002
Round 1 defeats rules for labeling gene-altered food
By Bob Condor.
Voters made all sorts of decisions in the last week that will resonate for
two, four or six years, depending on the term and elected office. In
Oregon, residents faced an even more futuristic issue.
Oregon Measure 27 was a referendum on a proposal that genetically modified
foods sold or produced in the state be clearly identified on labeling. It
was resoundingly defeated Tuesday by more than 70 percent of voters, but
its supporters vowed to keep the movement alive. Though the ballot measure
didn't cultivate enough voter support, most observers recognize Oregon as
fertile testing ground. It should be noted that Oregon was a forerunner in
the organic-food movement, creating growing standards and shaping consumer
attitudes long before the federal government installed its new organic
regulations last month.
Food researcher Carl Winter laughed when it was that suggested Measure 27
could be introduced "only in Oregon." Then Winter quickly added that "a
number of California firms funded the Oregon initiative" to gauge
awareness of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
"It is good thing for consumers to be aware of GMOs," said Winter, a food
toxicologist and professor with the University of California at Davis.
"The issue is complicated. GMOs and biotechnology have the potential to
revolutionize our food systems. We just don't yet if that is an exciting
or scary proposition."
It is estimated that as much as 70 percent of processed foods in the
United States contain some genetically altered or genetically engineered
ingredient, typically some component of corn, soybeans or canola oil.
Where the complications in labeling begin is whether, say, the GMO corn
allows for a plant that doesn't require pesticides or maybe one that can
be sprayed with herbicides to kill weeds but not the crop (because the
introduced genetic material isn't affected by the herbicide).
The only way to avoid unwanted possibilities is to select foods that claim
to be "GMO-free" or "USDA organic" on packages. For Winter, the scientific
debate about GMOs is far from settled.
"No one can prove or disprove GMOs cause any legitimate health or safety
concerns," he explained. "The bigger issue [for the anti-GMO movement] is
distrust of industries producing these foods and the regulating government
bodies. There is a major concern that a large percentage of our food
supply will be controlled by a small number of multinational
John Robbins is a food and environmental activist best known for his 1971
book "Diet for a Small Planet." He was among the first Americans to
question the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock and pesticides in
"These big companies really, really want to defeat Measure 27," Robbins
said, "because California is the next domino."
Robbins said about 30 other countries have passed GMO labeling laws--why
is Europe always ahead on these issues?--but prices haven't been
noticeably increased because of it. The major objection among the business
community is the increased cost of providing GMO labels and required
Apparently, a number of agribusiness firms aren't so willing to give in to
non-GMO forces. The "Vote No on Measure 27" organization raised nearly $5
million late in the campaign to blitz the airwaves with commercials. The
pro-labeling Concerned Citizens group said Monsanto has been a major
contributor. Before the ad campaign, at least one survey showed the "Vote
Yes" group to be leading by 20 percentage points.
Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Lester M. Crawford weighed in on
the issue in early October. He wrote a letter to Oregon state officials
stating "mandatory labeling to disclose that a product was produced
through genetic engineering does not promote the public health in that it
fails to provide material facts concerning the safety or nutritional
aspects of food and may be misleading to consumers."
For Carl Winter and other food scientists, the safety issue demands more
study. Until then, the father of two grade-school sons doesn't fret much
about GMOs and buys organic more for variety at the Davis farmers' market.
He does recommend thorough scrubbing of all produce and worries about the
"thousands of farm workers in California with illnesses and injuries from
"The most important point is people need to be eating lots of fruits,
vegetables and grains," Winter said. "Research shows a diet high in these
foods protects against heart disease and many cancers. That message gets
lost too often in the arguments about organic foods and GMOs."
Oregon Measure 27 died in big-dollar blitz
Measure 27 died in big-dollar blitz
The Oregoonian (Portland) 11/10/02
In early October, almost two-thirds of Oregon voters supported a
measure requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods,
according to at least one poll. Before the month was out, polls showed
more than two-thirds wouldn't vote for it. And on Tuesday, most people
Opponents shelled out $4.5 million on advertising in the three weeks
between the polls, that's what.
Supporters of Measure 27 spent about $200,000 in their effort to
convince voters that Oregon should be the first state to label
genetically modified foods. Opponents spent about $5.5 million to kill the
idea, tying the record for the most money ever spent on an
initiative campaign in Oregon.
"If the other side isn't spending any money, their chances are as good as
if the 49ers took the field against a high school football team made
up of kids whose left legs are all broken," said Bill Lunch, a political
science professor at Oregon State University.
Proponents of labeling genetically modified foods say Tuesday's 71
percent to 29 percent vote has not discouraged them from continuing
their campaign to identify genetically modified foods. They say
they'll be back with another ballot initiative. They're also lobbying
Congress and working in other states.
But Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety in
Washington, D.C., said they were all "sort of taken aback" by the
millions of dollars spent to defeat Measure 27 in Oregon this year.
A coalition backed by the biotech, grocery and agriculture industries
spent about $6.35 for every "no" vote cast against Measure 27.
The deep-pocket campaign by outside interests shouldn't have come as a
surprise in a small state that insists on testing new ideas through its
initiative system. Pharmaceutical firms, tobacco companies, the adult
entertainment industry and a long list of others have poured millions
into the state to influence past Oregon initiative elections, said Fred
Neal, campaign finance manager at the state Elections Division.
That's because "little, old Oregon can set a trend or a precedent that
some folks might want to nip in the bud," Neal said.
The last initiative campaign to top $5 million was in 1986, when
Portland General Electric, along with a consortium of utilities, spent
about $5.5 million to defeat a measure intended to shut down the
Trojan nuclear power plant 40 miles north of Portland. The initiative
failed, but PGE did close Trojan in 1993, nearly two decades earlier
BIG MONEY DOESN'T ALWAYS GUARANTEE SUCCESS.
In 1996, the tobacco industry outspent its opponents by a 7-1 ratio
when it put $4.8 million into a campaign to defeat a proposed
cigarette tax increase. Oregon voters approved the higher tax.
But OSU's Bill Lunch said if one side is flooding airwaves and mailboxes
with ads and the other side is essentially silent, as in this
election, the advertised point of view prevails.
"We were a faint voice in the forest compared to the resounding
thunder of commercials playing on every radio and TV station 10 to 12
times a day," said Mel Bankoff, who put $120,000 into the pro-Measure 27
Bankoff accuses opponents of scaring voters by telling them food costs
would increase about $550 a year for a family of four.
Pat McCormick, spokesman for No on Measure 27, stands by the projected
food costs. And he said his side had no choice but to mount an
About 70 percent of the processed foods on U.S. grocery store shelves
contain some kind of genetically modified ingredient. The technology
involves removing a gene from the DNA strand of one organism, such as a
plant or animal, and inserting it into another to transfer a
Early polls showed support for Measure 27, and opponents knew this was the
first state where voters would be confronted with a choice about the
labeling of genetically modified foods, McCormick said.
What's more, Oregon's vote-by-mail system means "We don't have an
Election Day anymore. We have an election fortnight," he said. "You
have to peak sooner and sustain longer."
Donna Harris, who started working in 2000 to put a food labeling
initiative on the Oregon ballot, said she will be back in 2004. She
also is forming a national political action committee to offer support and
advice to others who want to launch labeling initiatives in their states.
"While we were doing this campaign," she said, "people from all over the
nation kept calling us and e-mailing us and saying, 'How can we do this in
our state?' "
On Wednesday, just hours after Measure 27's overwhelming defeat in
Oregon, the Center for Food Safety released a poll indicating that
88.5 percent of U.S. consumers support mandatory labeling of
genetically modified food. The Center for Food Safety belongs to
GEFoodAlert, a coalition of health, consumer and environmental groups
pushing for the removal of genetically engineered ingredients from
U.S. grocery store shelves unless they are safety tested and labeled.
If corporations continue to wage the battle against labeling with
Brink's trucks, there's a good chance voters will rebel, the center's
"We think Oregon was probably the first step and by no means the last
one," he said. "The success that Oregon had was to get the issue out."
Janie Har of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.
Michelle Cole: 503-294-5143; firstname.lastname@example.org
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