A multimillion-dollar referendum food fight is heating up in California, where citizens have secured a ballot question asking voters if they want foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled. Should the citizens’ initiative succeed at the ballot box, experts say the impact will be felt across the nation, including here in Maine.

“I think it will have implications nationally and for Maine,” said Mark Lapping, distinguished professor of public policy at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. “The best comparison I can provide is the Texas school board when it chooses textbooks.”

Those choices influence the material printed in textbooks for the rest of the country because the Texas market is so huge. Likewise, if food manufacturers are forced to label foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients in California, the same labels are bound to show up on store shelves across the country.

“California is a big enough state that when they pass something like this it’s more economical to have one label,” said Mario Teisl, an economics professor at the University of Maine in Orono, where he’s conducted research on consumer attitudes about labeling genetically engineered food. “If Maine passed this they’d just ignore us, most likely.”

Demonstrating the importance they place on the ballot issue, multinational food and chemical companies have ponied up $25 million to fight the initiative, with political strategists predicting the contributions could soar as high as $50 million before the November election. Supporters have only raised $2 million.

Donations to defeat the referendum come from familiar household brands, such as Kellogg’s, Hershey’s, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Ocean Spray, Hormel, McCormick, ConAgra Foods and Morton Salt; and from top chemical firms, including Monsanto, Dupont and Dow. All the companies fighting the initiative have a financial stake in the battle, either producing genetically modified seeds and related pesticides (whose use has risen since the introduction of genetically altered crops) or presumably using genetically engineered ingredients in their foods.

SURVEY SAYS

The reason agribusiness companies are worried is because the majority of Americans favor labeling and are wary of genetically engineered food.

Teisl’s research, conducted nationally in 2002, found that 85 percent of respondents wanted genetically engineered food to be labeled. In Maine, his research found that 87 percent of respondents wanted these same labels.

More recent national polling has found an even higher percentage of Americans in favor of labeling genetically engineered food. Last year, an MSNBC poll found 90 percent of respondents supportive of labeling, while an ABC News poll put the figure at 93 percent.

A national survey conducted in April by the Mellman Group for a nonprofit in favor of labeling genetically engineered food found a similar percentage of Americans supported it. The poll also found that only 25 percent of respondents felt genetically engineered foods are “basically safe.”

It’s these sort of numbers that have prompted multinational companies to pour such large amounts of cash into the fight to defeat the California labeling initiative.

A poll conducted in California in July by the California Business Roundtable and Pepperdine University, showed 64.9 percent of respondents supported the referendum and 23.9 percent opposed it. The decrease in support from national polls likely reflects the opposition’s media blitz on the issue.

One person in Maine closely watching the outcome of the California vote is potato seed farmer Jim Gerritsen, who heads the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association.

The national organic farmers organization is currently embroiled in a federal legal battle with Monsanto, a leading producer of genetically engineered seeds and the top campaign donor to the effort to defeat the California labeling referendum. The farmers’ lawsuit challenges Monsanto’s seed patents and seeks blanket protection from patent infringement lawsuits should organic crops become contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically altered plants.

“The biotech industry is the only industry I know of that is so ashamed of its products that it’s afraid of the American public finding out what’s in them,” Gerritsen said. “In a democracy, everybody benefits when there is a free flow of information. When you deny that information, there is a dysfunction in the economy.”

Teisl said his research shows that the longer the period of time consumers are exposed to a particular food ingredient, such as genetically-engineered ingredients, the less resistant they are to consuming it. He said the industry may have avoided such consumer suspicion and political battles had it opted to market its genetically engineered food from the get-go.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that more than 70 percent of processed foods sold today contain genetically-engineered ingredients. These genetically-modified foods first appeared in grocery stores in 1994 and their presence has steadily increased since then.

“Today if a person feels strongly about genetically modified food and wants to avoid it, they really have to buy certified organic food,” said John Jemison, who is a cooperative extension professor at the University of Maine.

By law, certified organic food cannot contain genetically engineered ingredients.

LABELS OR LAWSUITS

Should voters approve the referendum, don’t expect to see new labels sprouting up on Coke bottles or Corn Flakes boxes anytime soon.

“They’ve made such a big deal of it, they would look like fools if they didn’t challenge it in the courts,” said Lapping.

As with any legal challenge, this could likely drag on for years. But should the referendum survive its day in court, then food manufacturers would face a choice between labeling or reformulating their products. However, removing genetically modified ingredients may prove difficult in the short term.

“I think the pervasiveness of Monsanto’s GMOs in the Corn Belt is so great that it’s going to be very, very hard to reformulate anything that contains corn,” Lapping said.

Most corn, soy, canola and sugar beets grown today are genetically engineered.

If they can’t source ingredients that aren’t genetically engineered, food manufacturers would be forced to adopt labels.

Lapping suspects that rather than adding clear labels that say something like “This product contains genetically engineered ingredients,” food processors will try to obscure the fact in an avalanche of information.

“They’ll probably provide so much information that it’s not the ease of accessing information that the supporters of (the referendum) want. It will be in very technical language,” said Lapping.

Teisl predicts that the new label information could offend consumers initially, but might not change long-term buying habits.

“If all of sudden a boatload of products have GM labels stuck on them, everyone is going to be shocked and disgusted, but what are they going to do?” Teisl asked. “Will they stop eating it? People will probably ignore it in the long run, that would be my guess.

“The fact that they’ve been eating it and didn’t know about it, means that some people will react and be really mad,” Teisl said. “The more you hide it, the more likely that people are really going to react.”

MAINE’S NATURAL ADVANTAGE

Maine companies have long traded on the state’s pristine image. Because Maine’s agricultural sector is comprised of relatively small farms (compared to other parts of the country) and a robust organic industry, the state’s food producers could gain a marketing advantage in a post-labeling world.

Even one of Maine’s largest agricultural crops — potatoes — is free of genetically engineered traits. While a gene-altered potato was introduced more than a decade ago, it never took hold because major firms such as McDonald’s announced that they didn’t want genetically engineered french fries. This caused the market for genetically engineered potatoes to instantly dry up.

“One of the many things that the food sector in Maine has is this sense of small-scale, clean, chemical-free agriculture,” Lapping at the Muskie School said. “I think that becomes a very useful marketing device.”

He pointed to Oakhurst Dairy’s successful battle against Monsanto over its advertising claim that its milk is free of genetically engineered growth hormones.

“That became a very important marketing device that Oakhurst was able to employ,” Lapping said. “They’ve secured a real niche in the marketplace.”

Many other Maine food companies could find a similar niche if genetically engineered foods are forced to bear labels.

As Jemison at Cooperative Extension said, “in some ways (genetically engineered labeling) could help these alternative, smaller industries we’re trying to build in Maine.”

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: akamila@pressherald.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila