Groups launch campaigns on GMO labeling
PORTLAND — In a TV ad paid for by advocates of labeling genetically modified foods in Oregon, voters are told 64 countries have such requirements and labels didn't lead to an increase in their food costs.
Opponents of GMO labeling have released an ad that says the opposite: Labels would be costly for food producers and consumers and would not show which ingredients in a product are modified.
With a decision on the Nov. 4 ballot measure just five weeks away, the two opposing camps combined have reported contributions of nearly $3 million and expenditures of more than $2 million, including advertising. It's a sign of what's still to come.
This is round three in the GMO labeling match in recent years. Similar measures in California and in Washington state failed narrowly after millions of dollars were spent, mostly by labeling opponents.
If adopted, the initiative by Oregon GMO Right to Know would require manufacturers, retailers and suppliers to label raw and packaged foods produced entirely or partially by genetic engineering. The measure would not apply to animal feed or food served in restaurants. It would be effective January 2016.
The United States does not require labeling of genetically engineered foods. Three states — Vermont, Maine and Connecticut — have passed labeling laws, although they don't take effect immediately. A similar measure also recently qualified for the ballot in Colorado.
Labeling supporters say there aren't enough studies on the impacts of GMOs, so consumers have a right to know if they are eating them. Gov. John Kitzhaber, who is running for re-election, recently came out in support of the measure, as did Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.
Critics say mandatory labels would mislead consumers into thinking that engineered ingredients are unsafe, which scientists have not proven. As in previous cases, the anti-labeling campaign is chiefly financed by out-of-state food corporations and biotech companies that grow engineered crops; endorsers include large state farming groups.
Though it's not reflected in the early filings, opponents are expected to raise a lot more money than proponents.
The anti-labeling campaign in Oregon has thus far reported just over $1 million in cash and in-kind contributions and has reported spending about half a million, according to filings with the Oregon Secretary of State's office.
The pro-labeling campaign shows $1.9 million in contributions and expenditures of $1.6 million.
These donations and expenditures are from a month ago because the campaigns have 30 days to make reports.
In both California and Washington state, biotech and other giant food companies vastly outspent opponents — a factor most experts agree helped defeat those measures. In both cases, the measures were defeated by about 2 percentage points.
The anti-labeling campaign spent about $45.6 million in California, compared to $8.7 million by labeling supporters. In Washington state, where the ballot contest went on record as the costliest in state history, opponents spent $33.3 million, compared to $9.8 million collected by the pro-labeling groups.
In Oregon, the labeling issue isn't new. In 2002, voters soundly defeated a GMO labeling measure. But the attention to GMO's has grown since then, as has opposition to genetically engineered crops in Oregon.
Earlier this year, voters in Jackson and Josephine counties approved bans on GMO crops. The vote came on the heels of the discovery of a patch of GMO wheat in Eastern Oregon. That discovery led to Japan and South Korea suspending imports of the crop over GMO concerns, temporarily closing a $700 million market and causing outcry and concern among farmers.
Labeling proponents say that could help turn the tide in Oregon. Ads released by both sides feature Oregon farmers, a tell-tale sign of their importance to the measure's fate.
Supporters say labels would help family farmers by "letting people know the difference between the traditional food we grow and food genetically engineered in a lab." Opponents say labels would hurt farmers, because "the last thing we need is a bunch of complex, costly regulations that don't exist in any other states."
Labeling proponents also say they've learned from pro-labeling campaigns in California and Washington.
"We've tightened the language in Measure 92 so the opposition can't make the same misleading claims they did in both those states," including making clear that labeling applies only to food meant for human consumption and increasing protections for farmers, campaign spokesman Kevin Glenn said.
The campaign is also focusing more on knocking on doors and registering new voters, Glenn said. The approach seems to be working: The coalition has received donations from nearly 3,000 Oregon donors. Its extensive list of endorsements includes nearly 100 farms and farming organizations, as well as dozens of restaurants, grocers, chefs and other groups.
Opponents call the measure badly written. It would not, for example, require labels for meat and dairy products from animals fed genetically engineered feed. They also say consumers who wish to avoid GMOs already have the choice to buy organic foods.
"This measure provides inaccurate and misleading information, and doesn't tell consumers what's in the food," said Dana Bieber, spokeswoman for the Vote NO on 92 Coalition.