Food labels stir debate, naturally

GMO issue heads for ballot

Proponents of Colorado’s Proposition 105 are girding for an election-season fight similar to the one California saw on a genetically modified food labeling initiative in 2012 that ultimately failed, in part because of heavy corporate spending in opposition.

Colorado’s Prop 105, to be voted on in November, would require food manufacturers to label packaged food produced with genetically modified organisms. Proponents argue that the new rule would give consumers more knowledge and choice about what types of ingredients are in the food they’re purchasing. Opponents say the initiative is misleading and would drive up costs for producers and consumers alike.

Spending on the debate in Colorado has been tame so far. Right to Know Colorado GMO, the group responsible for gathering signatures to place the measure on the ballot, had raised $117,430 and spent $90,304 as of its Aug. 1 filing with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. The Coalition Against the Misleading Labeling Initiative, meanwhile, has raised $199,150 and spent about $113,000 as of the same date. The latest deadline for campaign contribution and expenditure filings was Sept. 2, after BizWest’s print-edition deadline.

The Coalition Against the Misleading Labeling Initiative’s contributions include $100,000 from the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, $54,150 from Monsanto Co., and $38,500 from Pioneer Hi-Bred Research Center.

It was agro-chemical companies such as Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, which has also contributed to the opposition in Colorado, that pumped more than $46 million into fighting California’s Proposition 37 – five times what proponents spent on the campaign.

“Are they hiding something, or what is it that they don’t want us to know?” said Larry Cooper, chief executive of Right to Know.

Cooper acknowledged there’s some debate over the health risks of GMO crops, which often are altered to be resistant to herbicides or can be altered to include genes of naturally occurring insecticides such as Bt toxin.

“I don’t feel that I know enough to say that it’s dangerous, but I don’t feel comfortable to know that it’s safe,” Cooper said. “A lot of it is about personal freedom, just really understanding what it is that we’re serving ourselves and our kids.”

Sara Froehlich, a spokesperson for the Coalition Against the Misleading Labeling Initiative, counters that Colorado’s initiative is misleading in what it purports to accomplish and could negatively impact producers and consumers in a variety of ways.

She pointed to the list of exemptions in the ballot measure that state which food would and wouldn’t be required for labeling. Meat and dairy products, for example, are exempt from the labeling requirement even if the animals they come from have been fed genetically modified food themselves. Food served in restaurants also is off the hook, meaning the same vegetables that might be labeled in the grocery store wouldn’t have to be labeled on a menu.

“The exact same products could be labeled in one situation but not another,” Froehlich says. “(Prop 105) would not tell which foods contain GMOs and which don’t, and would drive up costs for consumers.”

Opponents of Prop 105 point to a study by Cornell University economists that suggests families’ annual grocery bills could rise by $400 or more because of mandated GMO labeling. The increased food prices, they say, would be driven by the cost of labeling as well as increased bureaucracy for regulation, inspection and enforcement. Even vendors at places such as farmers markets, Froehlich says, would be adversely affected.

Steve Hoffman, managing partner at Compass Natural Marketing in Boulder, worked on the campaign for California’s Prop 37 and has worked with the campaign for Colorado’s Prop 105. He dismissed the increased-cost argument by opponents as a red herring, arguing that food producers change labeling on their packaging frequently and that it’s a normal cost of business.

“It doesn’t raise costs,” Hoffman said. “What they fear is that they’re going to have to start using non-GMO in their products” because of market demand.

Hoffman said some companies that bill themselves as “natural” food producers have run into problems with that assertion because they include GMO ingredients. Naked Juice, owned by PepsiCo., settled a class-action suit last fall for $9 million that challenged the company’s “all natural” claims while contending the juices contained GMOs.

That’s just one of the potential pitfalls for food companies with regard to Prop 105, Froehlich said. Language in the measure is so strict about the processes for producing non-GMO foods, she said, that some food that is already certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or is Non-GMO Project verified could be forced to be labeled as containing GMOs.

Cooper said that isn’t true, and that the standards in Prop 105 are no more stringent than the Non-GMO Project standards. He said Right to Know hired Natural Grocers as a consultant during the crafting of the ballot language to help steer the organization clear of verbiage that could cause issues for small grocery stores and natural and organic farmers.

With dozens of other countries already requiring various forms of GMO labeling, Cooper said Prop 105 actually could help Colorado producers market their products globally.

Vermont, Connecticut and Maine all have GMO labeling requirements, and voters in Oregon will consider the issue in November. Washington, meanwhile, saw its own GMO labeling bill shot down last fall, facing stiff opposition from many of the same corporate players that fought California’s Prop 37.

“It’s such a grassroots collection of donors” on the Prop 105 side, Hoffman said, “and then on the other side it’s always 24 companies.”

Joshua Lindenstein can be reached at 303-630-1943, 970-416-7343 or jlindenstein@bizwestmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joshlindenstein.

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