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Debate Continues on Oregon
GE Labeling Initiative

Food labeling expense unclear

Opponents say the proposed initiative would only cost taxpayers more.
MICHAEL ROSE
Statesman Journal (Salem, Oregon)
July 27, 2002


In a debate that is about labels on food, the price tag remains an unknown.
Backers of an initiative that would require labeling all foods containing
genetically engineered material sold in Oregon have gathered enough
signatures to get the measure on the November ballot. Supporters said
consumers have the right to know the many genetically altered foods they eat
daily.

But Oregonians may vote on the labeling law with no idea of its cost to
taxpayers, even though one state report estimated it could take $11.2
million a year to enforce.

The reason? A state committee charged with approving the language in the
voter's pamphlet has chosen a statement that says the labeling law could
"have an impact on state government, but the amount cannot be determined."
"I have expressed a lot of angst and disappointment over this," said State
Treasurer Randall Edwards, a member of the Fiscal Impact Statement
Committee. The law governing the committee's work doesn't give it enough
discretion to provide voters with the best information available, he said.
Because the labeling initiative does not address how it would be enforced,
or how it would be funded, committee members decided Oregon law made it
impossible for them to approve a more specific cost estimate. "We were over
a barrel," Edwards said.

In making the decision, the committee rejected the $11.2 million a year
estimate in annual ongoing costs < plus $6.3 million in first year start-up
costs < made by the Department of Administrative Services.
The rejected estimate assumed the job of policing the labeling law would
fall to the Oregon Department of Agriculture and would pay for 55 full-time
equivalent staff field positions, six administrative positions, vehicles,
lab equipment and other costs for auditing retailers and testing 25,000 food
samples a year.

"We have a statute that defines the responsibility of the committee and it's
fairly narrowly drawn," said Elizabeth Harchencko, director of the
department of revenue and another committee member.

Two years ago, for example, a ballot measure that would have allowed
Portland General Electric to earn a profit on its investments in the
decommissioned Trojan nuclear power plant was listed in the voters' pamphlet
as having no fiscal impact to state or local government. Opponents argued
the measure would have gouged ratepayers and it was soundly defeated.
Harchencko and Edwards said it may be time to change the statue to give the
fiscal impact committee more latitude in including cost estimates in the
voter's pamphlet, and there is talk of introducing legislation. The
Secretary of State and the Director of the Department of Administrative
Services round out the four-member group.

Donna Harris, the chief petitioner for the labeling law, said leaving out a
dollar figure in the voters' pamphlet was appropriate. If the initiative
becomes law, the legislature would set rules to determine how much would be
spent on enforcement. It could even fund the program through fines on
companies skirting the rules, she said.

"I think administrative services is looking at a high number so they don't
underestimate things," Harris said.

Mel Bankoff, president of Emerald Valley Kitchen, a Eugene maker of organic
salsas and bean dips who has provided $50,000 in funding to promote the
labeling campaign, said he wasn't certain how the campaign would be effected
by the voters pamphlet.

"I can't think of anything more important on this planet than the safety of
the food supply. It's hard to put a price tag on that," Bankoff said. The
many unknowns of genetically engineered foods means labeling is needed
immediately, he said.

Meanwhile, opponents of the labeling law want a cost estimate in the voter's
pamphlet to drive home their view that it's unnecessary and expensive. If
anything, the state's estimate for enforcement costs is on the low side,
they say. They plan to take their complaints to the fiscal impact statement
committee at a public hearing next week.

"Without enforcement, it's even of less value than these relatively
meaningless labels," said Pat McCormick, a spokesman for the Coalition
Against the Costly Labeling Law. The group represents the grocery industry,
farm lobby, and other business interests.
Michael Rose can be reached at (503) 399-6657.

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