September 5, 2012

Natural Foodie: Food-fight fallout may drift over Maine

By Avery Yale Kamila akamila@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

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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

WHAT CALIFORNIANS WILL SEE ON THE BALLOT

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.

"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

 

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