September 5, 2012

Natural Foodie: Food-fight fallout may drift over Maine

By Avery Yale Kamila
Staff Writer

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.

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May contain genetically engineered ingredients? Companies that include Ocean Spray, Hormel, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McCormick, Hershey’s, Kellogg’s, Morton Salt and ConAgra Foods have donated millions of dollars to defeat a California referendum that would require foods containing genetically engineered foods to be labeled.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer


GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOODS. LABELING. INITIATIVE STATUTE. Requires labeling of food sold to consumers made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specific ways. Prohibits marketing such food, or other processed food, as "natural." Provides exemptions.

A YES VOTE MEANS: Genetically engineered foods sold in California would have to be specifically labeled as being genetically engineered.

A NO VOTE MEANS: Genetically engineered foods sold in California would continue not to have specific labeling requirements.

FISCAL IMPACT: Increased annual state costs from a few hundred thousand to over $1 million to regulate the labeling of genetically engineered foods. Additional, but likely not significant, governmental costs to address violations under the measure.

"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.


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.

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