More Money, Fewer Facts: Final Week of Oregon’s GMO Labeling Race


yes92Oregon is awash in GMO labeling cash. Even before the seed giant DuPont Pioneer dumped $4.46 million to oppose mandatory GMO-labeling in Oregon late last week,  Ballot Measure 92 had already been on record as the costliest in the state’s history.

As with California’s Proposition 37 and Washington’s Initiative 522 before it, Measure 92 has elicited a steady stream of donations from biotech and Big Food, including companies like Kraft, PepsiCo, CocaCola, and of course, Monsanto, which gave over $4 million against the Oregon measure.

So far, the “No on 92” campaign has brought in over $16 million. The pro-labeling side meanwhile, has raised a nearly $7 million, with several hefty donations from the soap company Dr. Bronner’s and organic food company Pacific Foods and a recent $500,000 donation from meat packing heir Tom Hormel. That brings the total contributions for both sides to $23 million.

Whether or not Oregon voters will opt to label GMO foods is yet to be seen, but the race is close. In an Oregon Public Broadcasting poll taken in October, 49 percent of voters supported Measure 92, while 44 percent opposed it, and 7 percent were undecided.

It’s clear that this state, known for many environmental firsts—including the country’s first bottle bill in 1971 and a pioneering urban growth boundary law—has the opposition scared. And unlike Washington and California, Oregon’s anti-GMO activists are coming off another win. Just last spring, voters in conservative Jackson County chose to ban the planting of genetically engineered crops.

With exactly one week to go before election day, we wanted to take a look at how the dollars are being spent—and examine some of the claims being made.

Unfortunately, the No on 92 side did not return our phone calls or e-mails, but, judging by the nine different ads running on Oregon television stations, it seems safe to say that they’ve spent a bundle on production and air time. A quick glance of the campaign’s financial records confirms this, showing a half-dozen large payments—many over $280,000—to Seattle-based marketing firm Amplified Strategies, the same marketing firm that Washington’s “No on I-522” campaign hired.

The largest cash expenditures the No on 92 campaign has made were two $1 million payments to Target Enterprises, LLC, the same Los Angeles-based strategic media placement company that made the media buys for the Prop 37 campaign in California [PDF].

Below are a few of the claims the No on 92 campaign is making in their ads, with some background and explanation.

1. “Special labels would not tell consumers which ingredients were GMOS.”  

This is true, according to Kevin Glenn, the press secretary for the Yes on 92 campaign. Just as current nutrition labels don’t tell you which ingredients in your Oreos contain fats or sugars, the “genetically modified” label would merely tell you that your cookies contain genetically modified ingredients.

2. “The measure would require many products to be labeled genetically engineered even if they’re not.”

We can’t find any evidence to back up this claim. According to the language of the bill, foods that contain genetically engineered (GE) ingredients would be labeled.

3. “Thousands of products that contain GMOs would be exempt.”  

This is somewhat true, according to Glenn. Fountain sodas and restaurant food are indeed exempt from the labeling law, but that’s because they don’t have labels to begin with. Measure 92 was written to conform with existing labeling guidelines. “Anything that is currently labeled would just get one more piece of information,” says Glenn.

Meat and dairy products that come from a genetically engineered animal would also have to be labeled. There are currently no foods from genetically engineered animals on the market, but if GE salmon is approved, it would be subject to the label. Meat and dairy from animals that eat GE feed wouldn’t need to be labeled, and neither would alcoholic beverages.

4. “Measure 92 would increase food prices for producers and consumers.”

Food companies change their labels all the time without increasing the price of their products. Think of the profusion of “gluten-free” and “all-natural” language added to labels in recent years.

Craig Ostbo, a managing partner at Portland-based marketing and communications firm Koopman-Ostbo has worked on packaging changes for a range of Oregon companies including Kettle Chips, Bob’s Red Mill, Lochmead Farms, and Coconut Bliss. Last year, in an interview he gave to Oregon Business Magazine, Koopman-Ostbo said he’d be hard-pressed to find an economic onus to adding “contains GMO ingredients” to existing packaging.

Studies that have found a potential cost to consumers say it would be negligible. For example, a study recently released by Consumers Union and ECONorthwest estimates that mandatory labeling would cost consumers an average of $2.30 per year—less than a penny a day.

According to journalist Michael Lipsky, if food companies choose to reformulate their foods with non-GMO ingredients, prices will likely go up, but that scenario represents a whole additional set of variables.

5. “GMO labeling in Oregon would conflicts with existing nationwide labeling systems.”

This is the claim made in other No on 92 TV spots—like this one with farmer Brenda Frketich.

There is no Federal labeling policy for GMOs, and an existing statewide labeling law would likely cause the FDA to re-examine their stance. (One did pass in Vermont earlier this year, but it’s currently caught up in a lawsuit). In fact, for some activists, the larger goal of statewide initiatives like Measure 92 is to put pressure on the Federal agency.

The two existing nationwide labeling systems that flash on the screen as Frketich talks—the Non-GMO Verified label and the Organic label–have some things in common with Measure 92, but they are not required. The Non-GMO Project has endorsed Measure 92, saying it believes that there’s space for both efforts to exist simultaneously. But Organic and non-GMO labeled foods still make up only a tiny fraction of the market, and in our current system, they’re also more expensive. “We feel that people—regardless of income level—should known what’s in their food,” says Glenn.

Meanwhile, the “Yes on 92” campaign has field offices in five cities around Oregon. And while it has also produced five TV spots, including the one below, most of the money it has received is funding grassroots efforts.

So far, the campaign has dispatched 750 volunteers to go door-to-door and phone bank from their homes. “We know we’ll get outspent by the opposition on the air, but we have so much grassroots support,” says Glenn. “We can talk to voters face to face.”

 

 

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  1. Eric Bjerregaard
    Wednesday, October 29th, 2014
    Consumers union and Eco northwest are wildly wrong in their cost estimates. They ignore the costs of testing, and of duplicate storage and processing facilities. Also they do not address the potential cost of alternative sourcing.
  2. Monday, November 3rd, 2014
    Eric, Measure 92 requires that 'knowing and intentional' use of GMOs in food be disclosed. When GMO seed is planted and grown for food, it must be labeled. The measure doesn't require testing, just honest disclosure.

    But this is a red herring. The vast majority of Oregon farmers do not grow GMO food in danger of contamination, and will face no costs for 'duplicate' storage and processing facilities. For those handful that grow both GMO and non-GMO crops, they are likely already segregating for different end markets (ie you don't mix non-GMO sweet corn intended for a cannery with GMO-food corn destined for a cattle feed lot).

    Measure 92 doesn't require alternative sourcing, only labeling. The free market will decide the rest.