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May 29, 2001


By Ann Schraderand Steve Raabe
Denver Post Staff Writers

Tuesday, May 29, 2001 - With his infant son cradled in his arms, Patrick West walked to the microphone in the state Capitol's old Supreme Court chambers.

West brandished a candy bar, noting that the label spelled out percentage of fat, amount of sugar, grams of protein and how much partially hydrolized oil was under the wrapper. But there was no mention of whether the ingredients were genetically engineered.

"I'm trying to find out what I can or can't feed my family," West, who heads a group that supports food labeling, told members of a Colorado Senate committee at the Feb. 12 hearing.

"The bottom line ... I want to know what's in my food."

The bill that was the subject of the meeting, SB 146, was indefinitely postponed, meaning it was dead for the legislative session. Opponents said labeling should be done on the federal level, not through a patchwork state system.

The proposal would have required most products containing genetically engineered ingredients to have a label separate from the ingredients list or to be accompanied by a notice.

"It's an issue that won't go away. I will come back with a bill next year," said the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Ron Tupa. "It's simply a choice that I'd like consumers to have."

Sixteen other states, Congress and federal agencies grappling with the labeling issue and a growing number of nations also are debating whether labels must disclose to the public whether a product contains genetically engineered ingredients.

Tupa, a Boulder Democrat, decided to carry a labeling bill when West, state chairman of the Natural Law Party of Colorado and director of the Consumer Coalition for Food Labeling, approached him after failing to get enough support to get the issue on the November ballot.

About three dozen people, ranging from those associated with organizations to individual consumers and farmers, testified in favor of labels at the February hearing, saying consumers have a right to know what they're eating. Many wore yellow buttons that said in red lettering: "Lettuce Know If It's GMO," referring to genetically modified organisms.

On the other side of the issue, a dozen representatives of agribusinesses, such as the Colorado Corn Growers and the Colorado Livestock Association, argued against state-by-state labeling laws.

Tupa noted that labeling of another type of food, organic products, wasn't required on a federal level until several states began passing laws.

In December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the first time defined organic, saying the term applied to fruits, vegetables, grains, meat and dairy products produced without pesticides, growth hormones, irradiation and genetic engineering.

In September, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., dismissed a lawsuit asking for mandatory labeling of GE products. The lawsuit, filed by the Center for Food Safety and others, challenged a 1992 Food and Drug Administration policy that says genetically engineered foods are essentially the same as those produced by traditional methods.

In 1999, the FDA held three public hearings and received 50,000 written comments on the policy. In spring 2000, the agency conducted a number of consumer focus groups around the country. The FDA found "an uneven knowledge and understanding" of biotech foods and "strongly held but divergent views" on special GE labeling.

After reviewing the information gathered in the hearings and focus groups - coupled with finding no adverse health effects from GE foods on the market - the FDA decided in September to keep its no-special-labeling policy.

Public sentiment is much stronger in Europe and Asia for labeling or even outright bans on GE imports from the United States, which are seen as a potential health and environmental risk. Generally, European countries have opposed various American imports on health grounds, although critics in this country have accused them of ignoring evidence that the food is safe.

Laws requiring labeling of GE foods have been passed in the European Union, Russia, Czech Republic, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand and Ecuador.

Sri Lanka has banned imports of GE foods, while several European countries - including Spain, Italy, France, Austria, Luxembourg, Norway, Greece and Switzerland - have placed restrictions on planting or field testing of some GE crops.

Margot Wallstroem, the European Union's environment commissioner, said she will submit proposals for labeling and tracing of GE organisms in all 15 member nations to head off militant factions seeking a moratorium on GE foods in Europe.

The European parliament recently approved new rules on labeling and monitoring GE food, preparing for the foods to appear on the market.

However, consumer groups, environmental organizations and some European governments say the rules don't go far enough.

The groups seek provisions to hold makers of GE food liable for any damages they may cause to public health or the environment.

Those who support labeling in the United States and Colorado point to the European reaction, noting that U.S. companies label GE foods and crops for export but not for sale at home.

"Do we really think everybody in Europe is dumb?" asked Logan Chamberlain, a natural foods activist from Boulder County. "It's about money. What we eat creates our health." ...

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