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Colorado & Other States Debate GE Food Labeling

Colorado & Other States Debate GE Food Labeling

States join global fight over biotech labeling

By Ann Schraderand Steve Raabe
Denver Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 29, 2001 - With his infant son cradled in his arms, Patrick
West walked to the microphone in the state Capitol's old Supreme Court
chambers.

West brandished a candy bar, noting that the label spelled out percentage of
fat, amount of sugar, grams of protein and how much partially hydrolized oil
was under the wrapper. But there was no mention of whether the ingredients
were genetically engineered.

"I'm trying to find out what I can or can't feed my family," West, who heads
a group that supports food labeling, told members of a Colorado Senate
committee at the Feb. 12 hearing.

"The bottom line ... I want to know what's in my food."

The bill that was the subject of the meeting, SB 146, was indefinitely
postponed, meaning it was dead for the legislative session. Opponents said
labeling should be done on the federal level, not through a patchwork state
system.

The proposal would have required most products containing genetically
engineered ingredients to have a label separate from the ingredients list or
to be accompanied by a notice.

"It's an issue that won't go away. I will come back with a bill next year,"
said the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Ron Tupa. "It's simply a choice that I'd
like consumers to have."

Sixteen other states, Congress and federal agencies grappling with the
labeling issue and a growing number of nations also are debating whether
labels must disclose to the public whether a product contains genetically
engineered ingredients.

Tupa, a Boulder Democrat, decided to carry a labeling bill when West, state
chairman of the Natural Law Party of Colorado and director of the Consumer
Coalition for Food Labeling, approached him after failing to get enough
support to get the issue on the November ballot.

About three dozen people, ranging from those associated with organizations
to individual consumers and farmers, testified in favor of labels at the
February hearing, saying consumers have a right to know what they're eating.
Many wore yellow buttons that said in red lettering: "Lettuce Know If It's
GMO," referring to genetically modified organisms.

On the other side of the issue, a dozen representatives of agribusinesses,
such as the Colorado Corn Growers and the Colorado Livestock Association,
argued against state-by-state labeling laws.

Tupa noted that labeling of another type of food, organic products, wasn't
required on a federal level until several states began passing laws.

In December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the first time defined
organic, saying the term applied to fruits, vegetables, grains, meat and
dairy products produced without pesticides, growth hormones, irradiation and
genetic engineering.

In September, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., dismissed a lawsuit
asking for mandatory labeling of GE products. The lawsuit, filed by the
Center for Food Safety and others, challenged a 1992 Food and Drug
Administration policy that says genetically engineered foods are essentially
the same as those produced by traditional methods.

In 1999, the FDA held three public hearings and received 50,000 written
comments on the policy. In spring 2000, the agency conducted a number of
consumer focus groups around the country. The FDA found "an uneven knowledge
and understanding" of biotech foods and "strongly held but divergent views"
on special GE labeling.

After reviewing the information gathered in the hearings and focus groups -
coupled with finding no adverse health effects from GE foods on the market -
the FDA decided in September to keep its no-special-labeling policy.

Public sentiment is much stronger in Europe and Asia for labeling or even
outright bans on GE imports from the United States, which are seen as a
potential health and environmental risk. Generally, European countries have
opposed various American imports on health grounds, although critics in this
country have accused them of ignoring evidence that the food is safe.

Laws requiring labeling of GE foods have been passed in the European Union,
Russia, Czech Republic, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand
and Ecuador.

Sri Lanka has banned imports of GE foods, while several European countries -
including Spain, Italy, France, Austria, Luxembourg, Norway, Greece and
Switzerland - have placed restrictions on planting or field testing of some
GE crops.

Margot Wallstroem, the European Union's environment commissioner, said
she will submit proposals for labeling and tracing of GE organisms in all 15
member nations to head off militant factions seeking a moratorium on GE
foods in Europe.

The European parliament recently approved new rules on labeling and
monitoring GE food, preparing for the foods to appear on the market.

However, consumer groups, environmental organizations and some European
governments say the rules don't go far enough.

The groups seek provisions to hold makers of GE food liable for any damages
they may cause to public health or the environment.

Those who support labeling in the United States and Colorado point to the
European reaction, noting that U.S. companies label GE foods and crops for
export but not for sale at home.

"Do we really think everybody in Europe is dumb?" asked Logan Chamberlain,
a natural foods activist from Boulder County. "It's about money. What we eat
creates our health."

Confused consumers sometimes turn to Colorado State University's Extension
Service for answers.

"I get some calls, but I don't get a lot. When it's in the papers, sometimes
we do," said Pat Kendall, a food and nutrition professor at Colorado State
University. "They want to know which foods are produced with genetic
engineering and where can they find information."

Kendall said Greenpeace has a Web site that lists GE and non-GE foods.

As a general rule, Kendall said, "If you're looking at a product that uses
soy and it says "organic,' by definition it should not have been produced
with soybeans that were genetically engineered.

"If it says "GE-free,' there is no government regulation on what GE-free
means, so you have to assume it is what it says it is," Kendall said.

"If if doesn't say anything at all, it could be GE or non-GE."

Ultimately, Kendall said, the choices shoppers make will determine what
happens with labeling. Consumers "should vote with their dollars, whether
it's a food safety concern or an environment concern or a food choice
concern."

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