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Biotech Industry Fears Oregon Labeling Law

Mon, Aug. 12, 2002
Oregon targets altered foods
CALIFORNIA MAY FOLLOW, AGRICULTURE
WOULD BE AFFECTED IF LABELS OK'D
By Lisa M. Krieger
Mercury News

Oregon is braced for a food fight this fall -- and California is likely to
be next.

Frustrated by legislators' failure to label genetically modified (GM) foods
so that consumers know what they are eating, anti-biotech activists are
taking their agenda directly to the public via the ballot box. Oregon voters
will decide on labeling GM foods in their state this autumn, and a similar
campaign is planned for California.

The decision in Oregon has the potential to affect much of the food on U.S.
grocery store shelves -- and some segments of California agriculture.
Two-thirds of all packaged foods sold in the United States today contain at
least one ingredient from genetically modified crops. Many of California's
farm products -- such as milk and meat -- would fall under the broad scope
of the Oregon measure.

Such labels are already required in some other countries, and advocates for
GM labeling say U.S. consumers deserve the same information. But they face a
tough fight from agriculture interests, the grocery industry and scientists,
who say the campaign is based more on fear than research.

``We all eat. And we all have opinions about what we eat,'' said Ken
Masterton of Bolinas, who has directed six major environmental and public
health initiatives in California and sees the GM food labeling question
looming on the horizon here.

``So let's put the issue on the ballot and let people decide,'' Masterton
said. He donated $5,000 to the Oregon initiative effort, as did groups in
Sacramento, Davis, Ukiah and Sebastopol.

Oregon is the first state to have such an initiative on the ballot. Although
Ballot Measure 27 has no authority outside Oregon, its influence would be
vast, because most foods sold in the state are grown or processed elsewhere.

The big three crops that come from genetically altered seed are corn,
soybeans and canola oil -- the sources of ingredients in starches,
sweeteners, syrups and oils. Even foods not sold in Oregon but delivered to
the port of Portland for distribution throughout the northwestern United
States would need labeling.

Activists face mighty opposition from agricultural, grocery and business
interests, which fear a nationwide patchwork of state labeling laws that are
based on panic, not science. America has the safest, most plentiful and
cheapest food in the world, they say, in large part thanks to biotechnology.
They view the GM labeling campaign as a strategy to stop all food biotech by
running up its costs.

``Are we going to label darn near everything on all grocery shelves? If so,
how does this serve the consumer?'' asked Bob Krauter, spokesman for the
California Farm Bureau.

Behind Measure 27

Oregon's Ballot Measure 27 won support on a wave of suspicion that neither
government nor industry was leveling with people about the health hazards of
GM foods. Drafted by a South Portland mother of two, it has been endorsed by
organic farmers, food co-ops and consumer rights groups -- some of them far
from Oregon.

Public opinion has shifted because of highly publicized regulatory errors,
including last year's mistake that allowed the unapproved ``Starlink'' GM
corn to be used in taco shells. A survey by the Pew Initiative on Food and
Biotechnology found that 54 percent of Americans say they have heard nothing
or very little about GM foods. Nonetheless, 58 percent said they oppose
modified ingredients in the food supply -- and 75 percent want to know
whether their food has such ingredients.

Legislation to label GM food has stalled in Congress. While the Food and
Drug Administration requires disclosure of a food's ingredients and
nutritional value, it does not require a label to say whether a gene has
been inserted to make it do newfangled things, like fight off pests or
tolerate herbicides that kill weeds. GM labels are voluntary, not mandatory.

Oregon activists hope their effort will influence consumers to avoid GM
foods, causing groceries to pull products from store shelves -- and
eventually, purging the state of all GM ingredients.

Casting a wide net

The language of the Oregon initiative is so broad that many, perhaps most,
foods would carry labels. This is because it requires a label on any food
that uses a GM-based agent in its processing -- even if that agent doesn't
end up in the final product.

So it would include most of California's hard cheeses, simply because they
are made with a genetically modified yeast, rather than enzymes from calves'
stomachs. It could extend to all dairy products and meats, because
vaccinations or feed used in raising farm animals may contain bioengineered
components.

Pat McCormick, who leads the Coalition Against the Costly Label Law, a food
industry group fighting the Oregon initiative, said the labeling requirement
would affect the entire country.

``If a chicken in Arkansas eats any GM corn in its feed, and then lays eggs,
and its eggs are powdered and then used in a cake mix in Oregon -- that cake
mix will require a label, even though the feed never ended up in the cake
mix,'' he said. ``The breadth of the application of this is staggering.''

Opponents raise other objections.

``A label implies a risk that does not exist,'' Krauter said. The government
already rigorously tests and reviews all foods to ensure safety, he said.

Modern biotechnology provides food producers with the latest tools in the
search for better, more healthful foods, as well as foods that are resistant
to certain pests and tolerant to environmental stresses such as drought,
said Martina McGloughlin, director of the biotechnology program at the
University of California-Davis.

``This could prevent work from going forward that would improve its quality,
enhance its nutritional value and protect against post-harvest losses,'' she
said.

Enforcement would be tough because of the complexity of tracing a single GM
ingredient from the farm to the fork, McCormick said.

``The label doesn't tell the consumer anything specific,'' he said. ``It
doesn't tell you what within the food is genetically engineered, how much,
or if it was just made with something that was genetically engineered.''

Is California next?

Undaunted by the criticism, activists said that campaigns are ready to go in
several other states if the Oregon effort is successful, including
California, Colorado, Washington and North Carolina.

``This is a technology that has burst upon the scene and become part of our
lives,'' Masterton said. ``But there's never been a public debate whether it
is a good thing -- and what safeguards should or should not be put in
place.''

Getting a version of the Oregon initiative on the California ballot could be
a tougher sell, advocates concede. The larger size of the state means that
more signatures are required for ballot initiatives, and campaign costs are
greater.

But anti-GM food activist Parker Bell of the group Oregon Concerned Citizens
for Safe Foods said, ``We just have to do a little fundraising. People are
set up all over California, ready to go.''

``There is the ways and means in California right now to make this happen,''
he said.
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