On the Ballot: GMO Labeling in Colorado and Oregon

Ballot initiatives in two states-Colorado and Oregon-address labeling for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Currently, neither state requires labeling for genetically modified food. Both Colorado Proposition 105, known as the Colorado Right to Know Act, and Oregon Measure 92, known as the Oregon Mandatory Labeling of GMOs Initiative, would require foods that were produced with or contain genetically modified organisms to be labeled. 

If adopted, Colorado Proposition 105 would take effect on January 1, 2016 and would require a label on any prepackaged, processed food or raw agricultural commodity that was created with genetic modification to read: "Produced with genetic engineering." The law defines genetically engineered or modified as food produced from organisms that have been altered through in vitro nucleic acid or cell-fusion techniques.

Exceptions would include food prepared for immediate consumption, such as at restaurants, alcoholic beverages, animal feed, chewing gum, medically prescribed food and food derived from animals that were not genetically modified but received genetically modified food or drugs. Labeling would be regulated by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Penalties for initial violations include a fine of up to $1,000, six months imprisonment or both, while subsequent violations include a fine of up to $2,000 and/or one year imprisonment. The Colorado 2014 State Ballot Information Booklet anticipates that state revenues may increase from fines, but that the first year of implementation will cost approximately $113,000 in staffing, rulemaking and computer software, which will cost approximately $130,000 from the General Fund annually to maintain. 

Oregon Measure 92 would similarly require genetically engineered food to feature a label such as "Genetically Engineered," "Produced with Genetic Engineering" or "Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering" and would take effect on January 1, 2016. The proposition defines genetically engineered food as food produced from organisms whose genetic material has been altered through in vitro nucleic acid or cell-fusing techniques. Exceptions include animal feed, food served in restaurants, and plant-breeding techniques, such as hybridization. The Oregon State Department of Agriculture and/or the Oregon Health Authority would be responsible for enforcement and the state and injured persons may sue for violations, but no penalties are explicitly listed in the proposition.

The text of Colorado Proposition 105 states that the legislature finds that U.S. federal law does not require such labeling and that long term effects of consuming genetically modified foods are unknown. As such, GMO labeling is intended to inform consumers about their food, to protect public health and to allow people with religious, cultural and moral beliefs to avoid foods that have been genetically modified. 

Supporters of Colorado Proposition 105 argue that GMOs have not been proven safe to consume, that the labels help consumers make more informed decisions regarding food, which is especially important for people with food allergies and food sensitivity, and that they are not trying to ban or segregate GMO food but only seek a label. In addition, supporters point out that over 60 countries, including the entire European Union, require some form of labeling for genetically modified foods but the FDA's current voluntary labeling guidelines are inadequate, underutilized and unlikely to be made into federal law. 

Supporters of Oregon Measure 92 echo these arguments and the text of Measure 92 offers additional rationales. Oregon exports over 80 percent of its agricultural products and is the top producer of 14 agricultural commodities, as well as ranking third in organic farm gate sales at $233 million annually. Therefore, to protect Oregon's economic health, Oregon has an interest in "preserving the identity, quality, and reliability of Oregon's agricultural products and exports." Similarly, genetically modified crops are generally herbicide resistant. This has encouraged producers to use herbicides without reservation since their crops will not be harmed, but this damages the environment. In addition, Oregon purports that GMO labeling will create a new market for food products that are neither organic nor genetically modified. In sum, Oregon Measure 92 is meant to protect public health, food safety, consumer decision making, economic development, religious and cultural practices and the environment. 

Opponents of Colorado Proposition 105 and Oregon Measure 92 argue that GMO labeling will increase food prices as farmers and food manufacturers and distributors must make financial investments in labeling compliance and record-keeping, and that small businesses and farmer's market producers will suffer most. Opponents also argue that this measure conflicts with the FDA's voluntary labeling standards. In addition, opponents fear that such labeling will imply that food made with GMOs are unsafe, which has not been scientifically proven. Lastly, opponents argue that the exceptions included in the law will effectively render the law useless because consumers will still be unknowingly consuming some foods made with genetically modified products but will assume that all foods without a GMO label do not contain GMO products.  

Currently, the FDA only offers guidelines for voluntary labeling of genetically modified foods. Three states-Connecticut, Maine and Vermont-have passed laws addressing GMO labeling, but Maine and Connecticut laws will not take effect until a threshold of other states pass similar laws.