Oregonians value healthy farms, clean water, and good food. Our pioneer spirit places a priority on personal freedom and individual choice about how we live our lives. This same pioneering spirit that defines Oregon’s way of life is creating a grassroots movement of consumers who want to know what’s in our food. That’s why we want to vote this November on labeling genetically engineered (GE) foods. The recent Capital Press editorial mischaracterized some facts about the Oregon Right to Know effort.
Labeling genetically engineered food is about transparency and empowering shoppers. We don’t need the government or big corporations preventing us from knowing how our food is produced. Provide us the information, and we can trust ourselves to make our own decisions about what to eat and feed our families.
Legislation to refer a GE label vote to citizens was introduced this year by lawmakers because they know that’s what their constituents want. Polls consistently show that 90-95 percent of American consumers want these foods to be labeled. A recent poll by the Mellman Group found bipartisan support for GE food labeling: Democrats (93 percent), Independents (90 percent) and Republicans (89 percent).
Having the GE labeling bill in the legislature provides an opportunity for public hearings, comments and public debate. But the session is short and there are many issues competing for lawmakers’ attention. If needed, Oregon Right to Know supporters will gather the required signatures to put the GE labeling initiative on the ballot in November. Contrary to the editorial’s opinion, there is no question that the required signatures can be gathered, because so many people want GE food labels.
Transparency about GE food is happening in Oregon and countries around the world. Many of Oregon’s top agricultural trading partners including Japan, South Korea, China and the European Union restrict the import of GE food and/or require its labeling. Most major food producers already have GE food labels if they sell their products in foreign markets, so it something they can easily add and history has shown changing labels doesn’t raise food costs. Most companies update labels every 12 to15 months already.
The Food and Drug Administration requires helpful information for consumers such as calories, salt and sugar content. However FDA currently doesn’t undertake independent testing of GE food’s safety, nor does it make any finding that they are safe. Instead consumers have to rely on information only from the companies themselves, which is only submitted to FDA voluntarily and confidentially. For this reason many consumers correctly do not trust the FDA and its food labeling process, and have valid concerns that the government agency is not representing the best interests — or the will — of the people.
Another concern is the amount of money being spent to confuse voters on GE food label efforts. Major industrial food corporations spent a combined $67 million to defeat GE label ballot referendums in California and Washington. In Washington’s recent GE food label effort, only $550 of the total $22 million raised to oppose labeling came from in-state residents.
The editorial argues that voluntary GE food labeling programs should be good enough, but this hasn’t worked. It has been 13 years since FDA first approved voluntary GE labeling and not one single company has chosen to voluntarily label the presence of genetically engineered ingredients in their products. Voluntary labeling keeps consumers shopping in the dark, and unfairly places the onus on shoppers to learn on their own which foods may be produced through genetic engineering. While we applaud Whole Foods efforts to label GE foods in their stores, most consumers do not have access to Whole Foods or cannot afford to shop there.
The vast majority of Oregonians want labels on GE foods and in the age of transparency there is no legitimate reason to deny anyone the right to know what is in the food they are eating and feeding their families.
In November, these same major food corporations and agribusiness companies will again spend millions of dollars to try to confuse Oregonians about the facts and discourage them from voting in favor of commonsense labeling. Oregonians deserve better.
George Kimbrell is senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety in Portland, Ore.