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Oregon next battleground for GM labels

Mateusz Perkowski
Supporters of labeling for genetically modified food are trying to get a statewide initiative on the Oregon ballot for 2014. Opponents have challenged the ballot title before the Oregon Supreme Court.

Opponents of a ballot initiative to label genetically engineered food in Oregon have gone to court with their objections to the proposed ballot summary.

Scott Dahlman, executive director of the Oregonians for Food and Shelter industry group, has challenged the proposed ballot summary in the Oregon Supreme Court. The group’s former director, Terry Witt, has joined in the challenge.

Supporters of the labeling initiative say they want to get the initiative onto the statewide ballot in time for the 2014 general election, which means they would need to collect nearly 90,000 valid signatures by the end of next June.

It’s critical that the ballot language accurately reflect what the initiative would actually do, Dahlman said. “It’s the only thing many voters get to look at.”

The summary language for the labeling initiative doesn’t fully explain the new authority for citizens to sue food manufacturers for alleged mislabeling, he said.

The initiative is written in a way that would allow people to bring lawsuits over any product that doesn’t acknowledge containing genetically modified ingredients on its label, Dahlman said.

Manufacturers would effectively have to prove in court that they don’t use genetically engineered crops, which would quickly get expensive, he said.

Consumers would also be able to sue over other alleged misbranding of foods, such as a fish product that’s labeled as halibut, according to a court document filed by Dahlman and Witt.

The ballot title summary doesn’t sufficiently spell out the numerous exemptions to the proposed labeling law, Dahlman said.

“We think once the voters get an opportunity to see what this measure is about, it’s not something they will vote for,” he said.

Scott Bates, acting director of the GMO Free Oregon group, said the court challenge is merely an attempt to “stall the clock” and reduce the amount of time supporters have to gather signatures. He expects the legal question to be resolved before the end of the year.

Despite the recent failures of similar measures in Washington and California, Bates said he’s optimistic that a majority of Oregon voters will vote in favor of labeling of genetically modified organisms. The terms genetically modified, genetically engineered and genetically modified organisms are often used interchangeably.

“Oregon is much more prepared to have conversations about GMOs,” he said.

Labeling has already been a hot button issue in several counties, and public awareness of genetic engineering is high due to the discovery of unauthorized biotech wheat in Oregon earlier this year, Bates said.

“It has helped move our GMO consciousness forward,” he said.

Fundraising for the initiative could be challenging, as companies that supported the measures in Washington and California may not be able to commit as much money to the campaign, Bates said.

Similar labeling proposals may also appear on other state ballots, he said. “There will be more mouths to feed, if you will.”

On the other hand, the money from labeling opponents would then also be spread more thinly, Bates said.

Dahlman said he disagreed with the notion that Oregon voters are more likely to support a labeling initiative, noting that 70 percent voted down a similar measure in 2002.



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