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On the Path to Oregon's Right to Know: A Second Chance

July 7th, 2014
By Rebecca Spector, West Coast Director and George Kimbrell, Senior Attorney
Center for Food Safety

On July 2, 2014, Oregon Right to Know submitted more than 150,000 signatures—approximately 63,000 more than needed—to ensure Ballot Initiative 44 (I-44) is on this November’s ballot. I-44 will require the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods for human consumption sold in retail outlets in the state of Oregon. The Right to Know campaign did not have much time to gather signatures, only about six weeks; but thanks to the combined tireless work of volunteers and paid signature gatherers, we beat the clock, and then some.

A major reason for our ability to secure so many signatures is the momentum that the GE food labeling movement has gained over the past several years.  With the passage of GE labeling laws in Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine, and the very narrow losses of prior 2012 and 2013 ballot initiatives in California and Washington, (3 percent and 1 percent, respectively), Oregonians are eager and ready to make Oregon the next state to require the labeling of GE foods.

But more than that, perhaps many Oregonians are ready to give labeling a second chance.

While many people mistakenly think California was the first state to run a ballot initiative to require the labeling of GE foods (Proposition 37 in 2012), in fact Oregon was, back in 2002 (Measure 27). The great folks that organized Measure 27 were clearly ahead of their time. Back then, while sixty percent of Oregonians supported GE food labeling, the organizers were only able to raise $200,000. Up against $5.5 million raised by industry groups such as DuPont, General Mills, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and the many lies that that money was able to promulgate on television and radio, the measure failed, 20% to 80%.

Since that time, a sea-change in GE food awareness has swept the country. In addition to the states mentioned above that have already passed GE food labeling laws, more than 70 different legislative bills were introduced in over thirty states, in 2013 and 2014. The rise of social media has also played a huge part in the growth of the GE labeling movement; remember, in 2002 Facebook and Twitter did not exist, and blogs were just starting to become part of media culture. In addition, with the growth and maturity of the sustainable food movement, many more diverse sources of funding are available to support it, giving I-44 a much greater chance of passage than its predecessor Measure 27.

Like the recently passed GE labeling laws, I-44 is will provide Oregonians with information about the foods they purchase that is currently hidden. Currently more than 80% of all processed foods are produced with genetic engineering, such as GE corn or GE soy, yet this information is not provided on the food label or made available to consumers in any way.

Unlike 64 other countries, including the European Union member states, Japan, Korea, Brazil, Russia and China, the U.S. has no law requiring labeling of genetically engineered foods. Yet polls continuously show that the overwhelming majority of Americans—over 90% in most polls—believe GE foods should be labeled. 

Unlike most of the rest of the world, under current FDA regulation, we don’t have that choice when it comes to GE in the foods we purchase and feed our families. Since FDA has to date refused to label GE foods, it is up to individual states to lead the way and protect our state’s interests, including preventing current consumer deception and confusion from the lack of labeling, and protecting public health, the environment, and sustainable farmers, by providing consumers with informed purchasing choice: the ability to know if a food product is genetically engineered or not. I-44 is a huge step toward protecting these interests. 

The road up to this point has not been easy, and it promises to get harder still. Signature gathering was delayed and forced to be completed in just six weeks because biotech industry groups filed challenges to its title in court.  These frivolous challenges were rightly denied by the Oregon courts, but did succeed in their true intent, slowing us down, making us wait before we could begin to collect the 87,000 signatures needed to put I-44 on the ballot in November. The good news is that they still failed: we got all the signatures we needed and then some.

So the battle is now set: Undoubtedly chemical and “big food” companies will once again put in millions of dollars to fight against I-44 and our right to know. But the people of Oregon have been given a second chance, and this time won’t be fooled by the opposition’s lies and misleading advertisements. We will stand up for our right to know how our food is produced, and make Oregon the next nation in the state to pass a GE labeling law – and the first to do it via ballot initiative. 

If you want to learn more about the contents of the initiative, check out the full text here:

George Kimbrell is based in CFS’s Portland, OR office. Rebecca Spector is based in San Francisco. Both are members of the I-44 steering committee.

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