Food Stamp

Oregon voters could mandate national biotech labels.


On Tuesday anti-biotech activists in Oregon hope to set food labeling policy for the rest of the country. Oregonians will vote on Ballot Measure 27, an initiative that would mandate labels on genetically engineered food sold in the Beaver state.

If Measure 27 passes, food manufacturers will have to choose between complying with Oregon's new labeling law and not selling their products to Oregonians. It is unlikely that national food companies such as Kellogg, PepsiCo, and Campbell's will let Oregonians starve to death. (Think of the negative publicity!) Hence they would be forced to stick Oregon-mandated labels on all their products, since they don't make Frosted Flakes, Mountain Dew, and Pepper Pot soups especially for sale in Oregon.

Promoted by a coalition of anti-biotech and organic activists styling themselves as Oregon Concerned Citizens for Food Safety, Measure 27 would require that "all foods derived in whole or in part from any genetically engineered microorganisms, plants or livestock, if that genetically engineered material accounts for more than one tenth of one percent of the weight of the product," be labeled "genetically engineered" (GE).

And why not? Don't consumers have a right to know what's in their food?

Sure they do, if they're willing to pay for it. Already consumers who are interested in information about biotech crop ingredients can and do demand, through their choices in the supermarket, that producers tell them what they want to know.

American consumers can assume that most of the processed foods they eat contain ingredients from genetically enhanced crops, since 60 percent to 70 percent do. (Soybean oils and corn syrup are the most common genetically enhanced ingredients.) That means that if Measure 27 passes, nearly every candy bar, soda bottle, loaf of bread, box of crackers, bag of chips, can of soup, bottle of ketchup, hunk of cheese, and package of lunch meat will have to bear a GE label. Given that, why bother?

Keep in mind that not a single person has ever gotten so much as a cough or sniffle from eating foods made with ingredients from genetically enhanced crops. Oregonians who are genuinely concerned about food safety can take heart from the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and the National Academy of Sciences all have concluded that biotech foods are as safe as, if not safer than, conventional or organic foods. If some consumers are still worried, they can choose to buy only organic foods or foods whose manufacturers have chosen to label their products as not containing ingredients from genetically enhanced crops.

So what's really going on in Oregon? One way to look at the battle over Measure 27 is to consider who is for and against it. In this case, a coalition of small organic food producers is trying to stick it to big national food companies. Companies behind Measure 27 include organic cereal producer Nature's Path, organic energy bar manufacturer Bumblebar, natural cosmetics maker Essential Wholesale, and a gaggle of organic food cooperatives. Proponents of the measure have raised nearly $200,000 for their campaign.

Opposing mandatory biotech labels are some of the largest biotech and food companies in America. Croplife International, a lobbying group for a coalition of biotech companies including Monsanto, has devoted $3.7 million to the campaign against Measure 27. Major food companies, including Kraft, PepsiCo, Campbell's, and Kellogg, have added $800,000 to fight the initiative.

This financial mismatch in the battle over Measure 27 is an instance of what I will call the Law of Fearmongering: It generally takes at least 10 times as much money to refute a specious fear campaign as it takes to launch one.

Both sides in this fight understand that some confused consumers would misinterpret mandated GE labels as warnings implying that foods made from genetically enhanced crops are unsafe. Of course, the anti-biotech activists behind Measure 27 hope consumers will make this mistake, while the big food companies fear they will.

Organic food producers are trying to use the blunt instrument of politics to award themselves an advantage over their competitors. They hope labeling will drive frightened consumers toward their products while reducing their competitors' price advantage. GE labels likely would boost retail food prices by 10 percent while providing no food safety gains or environmental benefits. Labeling would raise costs because of the need to build infrastructure to segregate organic, conventional, and biotech crops, including separate grain silos, rail cars, and ships as well as elaborate testing and sampling schemes.

While one might be tempted to side with the organic Davids, it turns out that the corporate Goliaths are right on this one. Let's hope the majority of Oregonians see it that way on Election Day.