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Statesman Journal (Oregon)
April 12, 2000

By Michael Rose

If tomatoes sold in Oregon supermarkets contain genetic material from flounder to improve their flavor and texture, a group of activists say consumers have the right to know.

The group has taken out papers for a ballot measure that could have Oregon voters pondering the growing controversy about genetically modified organisms in the food supply. The initiative petition would require all foods containing genetically modified organisms sold in Oregon to carry labels informing consumers.

If a vegetable variety was created by transferring genes from one species to another, a label approved by the state agriculture department would have to list the types of genetic material used. Genetically altered tomatoes, including a variety that contains fish genes, as well as bioengineered potatoes, squash, corn, and other produce are already on store shelves.

The proposed labeling would also include dairy and meat products taken from livestock fed genetically engineered feed or feed additives.

Agriculture industry observers say they had expected someone to push for a law to require labeling of genetically modified foods in Oregon. Similar attempts are under way in several other states. In Europe and Japan, the controversy has reached a fevered pitch.

"The country is going to have their eyeballs on Oregon," said Patricia Steurer, a Newberg resident and one of the people who filed the documents with the state. Steurer is an alternative health-care educator who in 1998 ran for Oregon governor with the Natural Law Party, a political organization opposed to the use of genetically modified organism in agriculture.

Critics of bioengineered foods assert that too little is known about their effects on the environment and human health. They point to examples such as Monarch butterflies that sicken and die after being exposed to pollen from plants modified for pest resistance. Farmers and seed producers maintain the bioengineered plants produce better crops and, in some cases, may reduce reliance on pesticides.

"Youíre starting to see more consumer awareness," said Scott Frost, another backer of the initiative petition. "But most people really don't know what it is, much less that they're eating it." Frost is also affiliated with the Natural Law Party, and is public relations director for Oregon Tilth, an organization that certifies organic produce.

Oregon Tilth has not formally supported the labeling initiative.

Salem-based snack foods maker Kettle Foods Inc. frequently get calls from consumers with questions about genetically modified foods. The company has never used genetically modified products in its potatoes and tortilla chips and soon will trumpet that fact on its packaging, said Jim Green, the company's public affairs manager.

"We're in the natural foods business and it's the only issue on the radar screen," Green said. Kettle Foods would have no problem if labeling became mandatory, he said.

The proposed ballot measure will be reviewed by the Secretary of State and have a 15-day public comment period on the petition's constitutional requirements. If it clears all the hurdles, the petition supporters would need to gather at least 60,000 valid signatures to get it on the November ballot.

"The emotionality over GMOs in the United Kingdom has been so strong that several supermarket chains have been forced to label products or yank them off the shelf,î said Laura Barton, of the Oregon Department of Agricultureís development and marketing division.

McDonald's restaurants in England have stopped buying french fries made from bioengineer potatoes in response to the public outcry. GMO opponents have labeled bioengineer products "Frankenfoods."

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