Oregon Labeling Initiative
in the News

Aug. 29, 2002


It started with a short radio story.

The more Donna Harris, a 41-year-old mother of two from Oregon, thought
about the story on genetically modified foods, the more concerned she
became. "I was just compelled to do something about it," she said, citing
fears for the health of her children. Harris started talking to friends and
circulating petitions. This fall, Oregon residents will have a chance to say
whether they share Harris' concerns when they vote on an initiative that
would require the labeling of all foods sold in the state that contain
genetically engineered material.

The initiative, the first statewide test of voter sentiment about
genetically modified foods, could have far-reaching implications.
Environmentalists in a half-dozen other states -- mostly in the West --
are keeping close tabs on the Oregon vote, Harris said from her home
in Portland.

"If the voters vote for this, it would send a strong message that this is a
serious issue," said Gregory Jaffe, director of the biotechnology project at
the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health and food safety
advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

The closing months of the Oregon campaign, which began more than two
years ago, follow recent European Parliament approval of a sweeping labeling
requirement for foods that contain genetically modified material. The
"frankenfood" fears that moved European politicians have not been widely
duplicated in the United States -- at least not at the federal level. Still,
the issue before Oregon voters on Nov. 5 has resonated in some states.
Last year alone, nearly half of all state legislatures -- Connecticut was
not among them -- passed bills affecting some aspect of agricultural
biotechnology, according to the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology,
a Washington study group. Final figures for this year are not in, but Pew
officials believe the trend is continuing.

"The range and volume of state legislative activity on agricultural
biotechnology last year reflects the growing significance of those issues at
the local and state level," said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of
the Pew group.

Are Reviews Adequate?
Questions about safety have prompted calls for labeling of genetically
modified or bioengineered foods, especially as the number of modified
products has increased in recent years. Although the issue is hottest in
Europe, it is of special interest in the United States, which accounts for
two-thirds of the 109 million acres of genetically modified crops grown

The Food and Drug Administration, which monitors the safety of the U.S.
food supply, has maintained for a decade that conventional and genetically
modified foods are equally safe and, thus, it has not required special
labels on modified products.

But some believe dangers lurk in genetically modified foods that might take
years to become apparent. The modification process involves isolating one
organism's useful traits and inserting them into another plant or animal to
enhance yield, to make it more resistant to pests or to enhance its
nutritional value.

One key reason for concern is that the FDA relies on producers to notify the
agency and submit safety data when they market genetically modified
products. Some experts say this voluntary notification process works well;
others say it is too lax.

"Establishing a mandatory approval process at FDA would lessen concerns
about eating unsafe [genetically engineered] foods, greatly reducing calls
for labeling for safety reasons," said Jaffe, the food safety expert.

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said FDA
reviews of genetically modified foods would be enhanced if the agency more
thoroughly examined test data from producers and more clearly explained its
food safety decisions. The FDA has been working for two years on a new rule
that would require producers to notify the agency 120 days before marketing
genetically modified foods. Additional safety information also would be
required. The final rule is expected to take effect next year.

Meanwhile, some insist that labels should be required in any case to alert
consumers who want to avoid genetically modified foods.

"Consumers are currently being used as human guinea pigs in a massive
feeding experiment," said Craig Winters, executive director of the Campaign
to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, a political advocacy group. "And
because there are no labels on genetically engineered foods, people do not
even know they are participating in this experiment."

Up to 70 percent of the packaged foods on U.S. supermarket shelves could
include genetically modified ingredients, but that does not appear to
concern the vast majority of Americans. Fewer than one-third have ever
discussed the topic with anyone, according to a nationwide poll released
this year by the Rutgers University Food Policy Institute.

William K. Hallman, associate professor of human ecology at Rutgers, said
that, when asked, 90 percent told pollsters they believe that genetically
modified foods should be labeled. But only half that number said they would
be willing to pay more for labeling, a potentially huge problem for
supporters of the Oregon initiative.

Opponents of labeling point out that the costs of the Oregon proposal could
be substantial. Pat McCormick, a spokesman for the Coalition Against the
Costly Labeling Law, said that one estimate put the tab at $120 million over
the next decade in Oregon alone. Producers would have to test up to 500,000
food ingredients, McCormick said, and tracking and segregating modified food
ingredients could become a regulatory and production nightmare. The
coalition includes the Farm Bureau, the Grocery Manufacturers of America,
restaurants and food processors.

Supporters talk about mobilizing a grass-roots network of environmentalists
and distributing thousands of fliers saying that consumers have a right to
know whether the food they eat contains genetically engineered material. It
is unclear, however, if the supporters will be able to match the expected
costly coalition television campaign against the initiative.

Oregon, a state founded by New England churchmen, has a history of adopting
seemingly quirky proposals. More than a generation ago, it became the first
state to establish a bottle-deposit law. More recently, the state
decriminalized medicinal uses of marijuana and rationed care to low-income
beneficiaries of the Medicaid health program. Only the bottle bill has
gained wide acceptance.

Even if the labeling measure passes, it might be delayed by court
challenges. Still, supporters say that state action provides them their best
hope of achieving their goal because Congress has not voted on recent
labeling bills and the Bush administration has shown no support for the

Harris, the Portland mother, says she is optimistic. She has quit her job as
a secretary to a judge to work full-time on the labeling campaign. Her
motives, she said, are more those of a mother than an environmental
activist, adding, "I was driven by the safety of my children."

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