Oregon Gears Up for A Food Fight on Labeling Issue

Petition for altered food labels gets on ballot
Opponents say the proposed measure would hurt Oregon farmers.
Statesman Journal (Salem, Oregon)
July 24, 2002

Expect a food fight this November.

Oregonians may be the first in the nation to vote on a labeling law for
genetically modified foods. Backers of the labeling law have turned in
enough valid signatures to get it on the ballot, the Secretary of State¹s
office said Tuesday.

Should the initiative become law, few food processors and farmers would be
untouched. A bewildering array of products could require new labels, ranging
from soft drinks sold in vending machines to prepared foods served at
supermarket delis.

³I¹m a mom and have two kids; that¹s my motivating factor,² said Donna
Harris, the chief petitioner. People should be informed about what they¹re
eating, and now they have no idea, she said.

Oregon Concerned Citizens for Safe Foods gathered 67,544 valid signatures to
get the issue placed before voters.

Lining up to block the labeling law: the Grocery Manufacturers of America,
the Oregon Grocery Industry Association, Associated Oregon Industries, and
the farm lobby.

³This is not a consumer right-to-know initiative; this is an
anti-agriculture initiative,² said Jean Wilkinson of the Oregon Farm Bureau.
The agriculture industry views the labeling law as an attempt to stop all
biotechnology by running up costs.

Oregon grows only a smattering of genetically engineered crops, such as
Roundup-resistant canola and corn with a built-in insecticide to kill pests.
Terri Lomax, an Oregon State University scientist who specializes in
biotechnology issues, said 70 percent of the processed foods on supermarket
shelves contains some genetically engineered components.

The big three crops that come from genetically altered seed are corn,
soybeans and canola oil. Eat a candy bar containing corn syrup and lecithin,
Lomax said, and the odds of consuming a genetically altered product are

Would out-of-state food processors change their labels just to serve the
Oregon market? she asks. Food costs for consumers certainly would rise as an
outcome of the labeling requirements, Lomax said. Meanwhile, Oregon business
would be at an economic disadvantage.

³This is too Draconian,² Lomax said.

Terry Witt, executive director of Oregonians For Food and Shelter, a trade
group supported by agri-businesses interests, said the labeling law could
extend to dairy products and meats because vaccinations or feed used in
raising farm animals may contain bioengineered components.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture would be charged with enforcing the
law, and taxpayers would pick up the bill.

The lion¹s share of the money behind the labeling effort in Oregon has come
from Emerald Valley Kitchen, a Eugene maker of organic salsas and bean dips.
Mel Bankoff, president of Emerald Valley, said his company has contributed
nearly $50,000 to the cause.

³If any state has the gumption to forward this into the mainstream of the
American public, let it be Oregon,² Bankoff said. While many in the food
industry complain the law would be too expensive, Bankoff said the cost
would be ³innocuous.²

He denied that his organic foods company, which has 18 employees, was trying
to gain a marketing advantage by backing the initiative. Even Emerald Valley
might be forced to alter its label because genetically modified crops, such
as corn and soybeans, are so pervasive, he said.
Michael Rose can be reached at (503) 399-6657.

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