ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
20 September 2002



Monsanto battles effort to require labeling of genetically modified food

September 19, 2002
St. Louis Post-Dispatch [via Agnet]
Bill Lambrecht

WASHINGTON - Warning of a "biotech police force," an industry alliance is, according to this story, waging a multimillion-dollar campaign to defeat an Oregon ballot proposition to require labeling of genetically modified food. The story says that St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. and its allies in the biotech and food industries have set a spending target of $6 million for the campaign against the labeling initiative, according to industry sources. That's 40 times the $150,000 the pro-labeling forces say they will spend. The story notes that the proposition is the first labeling measure to appear on a state ballot. But it might not be the last, which is an unappetizing prospect for the food and biotech industries, which say labeling would mean higher food bills for consumers. At least 70 percent of processed food on U.S. grocery shelves contains engineered ingredients. Supporters of labeling say the industry is exaggerating the costs and that, in any case, consumers want to know what's in the food they buy. The story says that in Oregon, Measure 27 would require that the packaging of any food or drink that contains as little as 0.1 percent of genetically modified ingredients contain information telling consumers the nature of the altered contents.

For instance, if corn chips were produced from plants engineered with a bacteria to ward off insects, consumers would have to receive such information.
Oregon's far-reaching proposal also calls for labeling of food prepared with genetically engineered enzymes - including some cheese products - and meat and dairy products from livestock fed genetically modified grains. The proposition was conceived by Donna Harris, a Portland woman who said she became intrigued while listening to a radio report about experiments in which fish genes were engineered into tomatoes. Now that she and other labeling supporters have obtained the necessary 66,000 signatures to place the initiative on the ballot, Harris said, she believes her measure can win because of people's demand to know what's in their food.

The European Parliament voted in July to lower the labeling threshold in member countries from 1 percent to 0.5 percent - still five times higher than the threshhold Oregon voters will decide on.

The name of the industry alliance formed to defeat the measure points to its main argument in the coming debate: The Coalition Against the Costly Labeling Law. Citing a study by a consultant it hired, the coalition argues that a labeling law would cost an average Oregon family about $550 a year, primarily because of the need to set up a system for inspecting, tracking and segregating food.

Gene Grabowski, spokesman in Washington for the Grocery Manufacturers of America and a strategist in the anti-labeling effort, was quoted as saying,"Consumers across the country need to see that the end result of suchmeasures as the Oregon initiative would be added costs to the consumer."Labeling proponents respond that countries that have moved to labeling haveexperienced minimal costs.

The anti-labeling coalition's Web site asserts that Oregon's AgricultureDepartment would be turned into "the biotech police" for the food industrybecause of the need to inspect food coming into the state.Pat McCormick, an Oregon political consultant who is directing theanti-labeling campaign, was cited as saying that his coalition mustcombat areflexive desire by people to have more information about what they eat,adding, "You can deal with this in the abstract but, in fact, people arevoting on a very specific set of laws and regulations that get put in place.It's in those details that public support erodes quickly."Buoyed by money from biotech companies, the anti-labeling coalition intendsto begin running television ads early next month. It expects substantialcontributions from Monsanto, a biotech pioneer that licenses more than 90percent of the world's main genetically modified products.Monsanto spokeswoman Shannon Troughton was cited as saying her company wouldbe supporting the anti-labeling campaign both through the coalition andthrough CropLife International, an industry alliance that includes theworlds' biggest biotech companies, adding, "The general feeling is that themeasure, if passed, would create a new set of bureaucratic rules andregulations and provide meaningless information at a considerable cost toconsumers."

The anti-labeling coalition also argues on the Internet that the labeling plan "is being promoted by a small group of organic food companies thatwould benefit financially if consumers can be scared into buying theirproducts."

That is a direct reference to Mel Bankoff, an organic food pioneer andfounder of Emerald Valley Kitchen in Eugene, who has contributed $50,000 tosupport the labeling initiative. Bankoff recently sold his company, which averaged about $4 million annually in revenues.

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