Voters in two Western states are caught in fierce battles over whether consumers will know what is deep inside their food.
Oregon and Colorado on Nov. 4 will decide the fate of labeling laws for genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, the latest fronts in a battle over packaging. Measure 92 in Oregon and Proposition 105 in Colorado call for labeling food so that purchasers know whether they are buying products that contain materials that have been genetically engineered or modified.
The states could become the first to pass such a referendum; Washington and California rejected similar measures after expensive campaigns in 2013 and 2012, respectively. Vermont approved such labeling through the legislative process, but the issue is still being fought in the courts.
In its most basic terms, the ballot measures pit coalitions of foodies, organic farmers and nutrition activists against many of the nation's leading manufacturers including the biotechnology company Monsanto, Kraft Foods and Coca-Cola. The coalition fighting against labeling has also included large grocery chains and some farmers, and some of the labeling advocates are sizable companies in their own right.
Those who want the label contend that consumers are entitled to know whether their food contains GMOs so that they can make informed decisions about their purchase. Opponents fear labeling will stigmatize their products and will place an economic burden on consumers because of the higher costs associated with separating out modified products from others.
A GMO is any plant or animal that has been modified with outside DNA, a practice companies contend is useful as a way to increase yield or provide protection against some diseases.
Still, GMOs carry the stigma of past debates that centered on "Frankenfood," and raise fear of good, scientific intentions running into unexpected consequences. That is an ungrounded fear, say scientists who have studied the issue. A 2008 report by scientists for the National Academy of Sciences found no health problems associated with using GMOs and well more than a majority of all commercial products have them.
The current battle in Colorado mirrors those positions.
"What California really did was wake up the country," Larry Cooper, co-chairman of Right to Know Colorado, told the Los Angeles Times. Even though the California labeling proposition lost, Cooper said the effort helped raise awareness on the issue.
In Colorado, the supporters of the labeling campaign are heavily outweighed by their opponents: $700,000 to an estimated $12 million, Cooper said.
"It's definitely a David-versus-Goliath thing," Cooper said, adding he was proud of the grass-roots support his side had marshaled.
"If they are so proud of GMOs, why would they be opposed" to a measure that advertises them on the label? Cooper asked.
Opponents contend that labeling measures could hurt the people they were designed to help.
"We oppose state-by-state mandatory labeling laws like Measure 92 in Oregon and Proposition 105 in Colorado," said Monsanto spokesman Thomas M. Helscher said in an email to the Los Angeles Times. "The reason we don't support them is simple. They don't provide any safety or nutrition information, and these measures will hurt, not help, consumers, taxpayers and businesses. We support a federal approach which ensures food safety and consumer choice."
In Oregon, the battle has become the costliest over a ballot measure in the state's history.
As of the weekend, the two sides have raised $16.7 million, the Portland Tribune reported.
Monsanto has donated more than $4 million to defeat Measure 92, it was reported.
On the other side, the Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps company, which has supported similar labeling battles elsewhere, has given $1.15 million.
And in a clever public relations move, Ben & Jerry's, the Vermont ice cream company and label supporter, renamed its popular Chocolate Fudge Brownie flavor to Food Fight Fudge Brownie to draw attention to the ballot initiatives.