PORTLAND, Ore. -- The Oregon Grocery Industry Association here is among the groups working to defeat an initiative that would require the labeling of any genetically engineered food ingredient in any food sold, distributed or produced in the state. The initiative will be on the ballot this fall.
Natural foods retailers are working in support of the measure, as well as six local food co-ops here, said Donna Harris, the chief petitioner. Proponents of the measure, Oregon Concerned Citizens for Safe Foods, collected more than 101,000 signatures to get on the ballot.
On the other side is The Coalition Against The Costly Labeling Law, which has hired a lobbying firm here, Conkling, Fiscum and McCormick, to wage a multimillion-dollar campaign against the proposal. The coalition is composed of biotechnology and food industry members and retailers in Oregon, as well as scientists who do research in biotech foods.
Cost is cited as the chief reason to work against the measure, as the cost of research and labeling would be passed on to the consumer in a state suffering from the highest unemployment rate in the nation.
"At this point we are organizing the campaign effort, reaching out to allies to expand the coalition and develop a network of grassroots capabilities, to allow us to talk with as many Oregonians as we can," said Pat McCormick, a partner in Conkling, Fiscum and McCormick. This will include television and will be a very visible campaign, he said. "What is being proposed here is sweeping. It would be much more comprehensive in its labeling requirements than anyplace else in the world. The law would generate costs to taxpayers, farmers and, ultimately, to consumers," McCormick said.
The law would apply to such varied applications as running a restaurant, selling Girl Scout cookies or serving food in a jail mess hall, he said, and requiring labels on anything that has been made with genetically engineered ingredients or inputs.
Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, Washington, said the association is not engaged in the Oregon fight, but is observing. "The food industry believes this is a fight that should be financed by the biotech industry," Grabowski told SN. Some members of the GMA are part of the coalition, McCormick said.
Oregon would be the first state to require such a listing, although similar measures have been proposed in Colorado, Maine and Florida, according to McCormick.
Brian Rohter, president of natural and organic New Seasons Market here, said his company has been actively supporting the initiative, making financial contributions to get the word out, and even had staff members at the small chain's Solutions customer service booth collect signatures to get the initiative on the ballot.
"I don't know if it's going to pass. I hope so, but, regardless, it will elevate the issue to a high public profile that will be hugely valuable to the eaters of the state," he told SN.
But Rohter added, "Our position is not that genetically engineered foods are bad -- we just want them labeled."
Harris said the group is "not really" getting any help from Greenpeace, the national environmental activist organization. "We contacted them, but they told us they had no one to send," she said in a phone interview with SN on Aug. 19. The Green Party has endorsed the move here, as has the Natural Law Party nationwide, she said. She estimated that the other side will spend between $4 million and $5 million, vs. the grassroots total of probably $150,000 to $200,000. Grassroots movements do well in this state, however, she said, after 10 years' experience working with the referendum and initiative process.