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House passes bill requiring labeling of genetically modified fish

SALEM — The Oregon House Wednesday passed a measure requiring the labeling of genetically engineered fish.

House Bill 4122 passed 32-27.

Supporters of the labeling requirement said it would allow consumers to choose conventional fish if they had doubts about the health or environmental safety of biotech salmon, which the federal government approved last year.

“We deserve as consumers to have the choice where we put our money,” said Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton.

Genetically engineered salmon will likely be cheaper than wild-caught fish from Oregon, so labeling will allow consumers to support their local industry, said Val Hoyle, D-Eugene.

“If they don’t understand the difference, they will just buy the fish that is less expensive,” she said.

Rep. John Davis, R-Wilsonville, said the bill was premature because the U.S. isn’t importing the biotech salmon from Canada until the Food and Drug Administration decides whether to require labeling.

The Oregon fishing industry is also free to label its fish as being wild-caught or non-genetically engineered, said Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Dallas.

“There’s simply not a need for this to be done as a matter of state law,” he said.

The bill was originally proposed as a means to give local governments in Oregon the power to regulate biotech crops.

Biotech critics claim that local ordinances are necessary to prevent cross-pollination between transgenic, conventional and organic crops because the state and federal governments have failed to act on the issue.

Opponents of the proposal argued that it would complicate farming across county lines, reduce crop options and put a strain on local governments that would have to enforce such ordinances.

However, the original language of the bill was “gutted and stuffed” at the committee level with a labeling requirement for genetically engineered fish.

While the proposal to allow local restrictions on biotech crops was removed from the bill, it may get resurrected in future legislation.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, said he wishes problems could be worked out amicably, but farmers who fear cross-pollination from biotech crops don’t currently have a system to prevent economic losses.

After the Legislature pre-empted local regulation of seeds — including biotech crops — in 2013, their concern hasn’t been addressed, he said.

“I think they have a legitimate issue that needs to be solved,” Holvey said during a previous committee hearing. “I hope the Department of Agriculture solves it or the legislature does in the future.”

Rep. Shemia Fagan, D-Clackamas, said she hopes the recent discussions in the legislature will pressure the Oregon Department of Agriculture to come up with a solution.

Fagan noted that heirloom crop varieties cannot be replaced once they’re lost, so she hopes to give farmers some method to protect such cultivars.

“There is some urgency to this issue,” she said.

Rep. Nearman said it would be unfortunate if the current system of voluntary cooperation among farmers were replaced with a “bureaucratic solution” for cross-pollination concerns.

“They try to solve their problems by talking with each other and working with each other,” Nearman said.

Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, said she agreed that an ideal solution would allow all types of farmers to co-exist.

“Let’s not pre-empt that possible pathway,” she said.

Mateusz Perkowski is a reporter with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau in Salem.