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Label debate pits big name vs. big bucks

Measure 27 gets star's backing and the wrath of global agribusiness

Supporters of a ballot measure requiring food companies to label genetically engineered foods have about $195,000 in campaign contributions and former Beatle Paul McCartney on their side.

On the other hand, while the measure's opponents may lack star power, they have a whopping $5 million in hand, contributed primarily by international food and biotechnology companies intending to snuff out the movement before other states get similar ideas.

Welcome to the battle over Ballot Measure 27, which is turning out to be among Oregon's most expensive Ñ and mismatched Ñ ballot measure campaigns.

Oregon is the first state to ask voters to decide if labels should be required on genetically altered foods. Previous attempts to pass national legislation requiring labels on such foods have gone nowhere.

As a result, the campaign is attracting powerful opposition, worldwide media attention and the support of McCartney, who performed in Portland last Friday. This week he taped a 30-second, pro-labeling radio ad now airing on a number of Oregon stations.

His message is that genetically engineered food 'is labeled in the European Union, and it hasn't cost farmers and consumers,' said Mel Bankoff, founder of Emerald Valley Kitchens Inc., an organic foods company in Eugene. Bankoff is Measure 27's largest financial supporter, giving the campaign about $70,000 Ñ mostly in loans.

McCartney's participation doesn't impress Pat McCormick, a principal in Conkling, Fiskum & McCormick Inc., the public relations firm that is coordinating the anti-labeling campaign.

'I don't know that it will help them,' he said Wednesday, noting that a new poll for KGW (8) had given the opposition an overwhelming 65 percent to 27 percent lead, with just 8 percent of those surveyed undecided.

The results were the reverse of a poll taken a month ago, just before opponents began running TV and radio ads and started a direct-mail campaign.

Still, with less than two weeks to go before the Nov. 5 election, Measure 27's supporters are hoping to recapture voter attention with a simple message: Consumers have a right to know what's in their food and to decide if they want to buy or eat it.

If Measure 27 passes, 'it could be a model for the rest of the nation,' said Katelyn Lord, who co-sponsored the measure with Donna Harris of Southwest Portland. 'Oregon could be the 'how-to-do-it' state.'

That's exactly what has raised the hackles of large food and biotech companies, which would be the parties responsible for tracking, monitoring and labeling foods sold in Oregon.

The measure's opponents have the backing of the federal Food and Drug Administration, which considers genetically engineered foods 'as safe as their conventional counterparts' and so do not need special labeling, FDA Deputy Commissioner Lester Crawford said in a recent letter to Gov. John Kitzhaber objecting to the measure.

McCormick, of the anti-labeling campaign, said labels on genetically engineered foods would mislead consumers into thinking that such foods are not safe to eat.

Food companies are spending millions of dollars to defeat Measure 27 because 'they take it pretty seriously when somebody suggests the products they make are unsafe,' he said.

Following the money

The largest contribution to defeat Measure 27 Ñ $3.7 million Ñ came from CropLife International, a biotech trade association based in Brussels, Belgium. That sum includes $1.4 million that came from the St. Louis-based agribusiness giant Monsanto Co.

CropLife's contribution also included hefty amounts from DuPont, Dow, Aventis and other global biotech firms.

Another $800,000 came from nearly 40 food companies, including ConAgra Foods Inc., PepsiCo Inc., the Kellogg Co., H.J. Heinz Co. and Hershey Foods Corp.

In addition to Bankoff, Measure 27's outgunned supporters have raised money from individuals (amounts ranging from $10 to $100), organic growers, food companies and environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club.

'I'm getting donations from all over the country,' said Harris, the Southwest Portland woman who organized the campaign to get Measure 27 on the ballot when she couldn't find out if baby food had genetically engineered ingredients in it.

Harris said supporters' message is: 'Who are they (food companies) to tell Oregonians what we should and shouldn't know about our food?' Opponents, she said, 'say the labels would be misleading, but consumers aren't that stupid.'

Worldwide attention

Because genetically engineered foods are a hot-button issue in most countries, the Measure 27 campaign has attracted media attention from dozens of American and worldwide media outlets.

The British Broadcasting Co. arrived in Portland this week to film a documentary about the issue, Lord said.

'When I asked them why they wanted to come here, they said that in Europe, it's housewives and grandmothers who push labeling,' Lord said. 'In the U.S., extremists on both sides talk to each other but not (to) the mainstream. Oregon is the first state to go the mainstream route.'

Janice Thompson, director of the Portland-based Money in Politics Research Action Project, said Oregonians should not be surprised that the campaign has attracted so much out-of-state money and attention.

'Oregon is a bellwether state with regard to initiative and ballot measure politics,' she said. 'What's striking is, now we're seeing international money. It's fair to say the 'no' players are very concerned about (Measure 27) setting a national trend.'

Thompson said the no-on-27 campaign could very well raise more money than three other high-spending ballot measure efforts:

• The unsuccessful $4.6 million effort in 1996 to defeat Measure 44, which raised tobacco taxes.

• A $5 million successful effort by unions in 1998 to defeat Measure 59, sponsored by Oregon Taxpayers United to prohibit using public funds for political purposes. The money also was used to support two other ballot measures.

• A $4.7 million successful campaign in 2000 by unions to defeat two Oregon Taxpayers United measures, 92 and 98, targeting payroll deductions for political purposes and other union activities.

Contact Mary Bellotti at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .