Food companies spending millions to fight label requirements in Colorado

IndustriesAssociated Press

Farms and fields dominate Colorado ads opposing a ballot measure to require labels on some foods that have been genetically modified, with farmers telling voters the labels will damage their businesses.

But farmers and agriculture groups are just bit players in the $11 million campaign to defeat Proposition 105. The real money is coming from biotechnology giant Monsanto Co., which has given more than $4.7 million, and food giants like Pepsico and Coca-Cola, which sent a combined $1.9 million to fighting the proposal.

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Hormel Foods, Kraft Foods, Kellogg Co. and The Hershey Co. are also outspending farm groups to fight the proposal. Food companies are pouring big money into fighting a similar ballot measure in Oregon, too.

Colorado and Oregon are battlegrounds in a national war over genetically modified organisms, or organisms that have been altered at the molecular or cellular level. So-called GMOs now make up almost the entirety of many staple crops, such as corn and soybeans, which are used in many items on grocery-store shelves.

"We're not saying GMOs are bad. We're saying we want them to be labeled," said Tammi DeVille Merrell, campaign manager for Right To Know Colorado, which has raised less than $500,000 and has no TV or radio ads to promote its campaign.

Short on funds, the campaign is relying on big-name endorsers to take their side.

Chipotle, along with Ben & Jerry's ice cream company, has backed GMO labeling. Former Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich has planned a visit to Colorado next week to talk up the measure.

Labeling opponents in Colorado feel confident they'll be able to defeat the proposal. They've spent just about $3 million on television ads, according to campaign finance data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity.

The ads call the labeling measure misleading because it doesn't cover many foods in the grocery store, including eggs, meat, dairy and beer.

Those foods aren't currently genetically modified, though animals are often raised on feed that has been modified. Labels also wouldn't be required on foods and drinks sold for immediate consumption by grocery stores, restaurants or delis.

Proponents said those foods are regulated in different code sections, making them impossible to include in a single ballot question. But opponents say the differences would confuse shoppers.

"Labels on food are very important to me. They need to be very reliable and not leave people making assumptions," said Mary Lee Chin, a registered dietitian who volunteers for the opposition campaign.

Chin said GMOs can help the environment by producing foods that require less water or fewer pesticides.

"Genetic engineering techniques, they're a more efficient way of growing foods," said Chin, who has worked as a consultant for Monsanto in the past but no longer works for the company.

Colorado and Oregon could become the first states to adopt mandatory GMO labels through public votes. Washington and California rejected GMO ballot proposals in recent years. Vermont lawmakers have approved GMO label requirements, but the matter is still being fought in the courts.

Publicly available polling is limited on GMO label requirements. Colorado State University looked at the question 14 years ago and found mixed results.

In that 2000 survey, shoppers along the Front Range were asked about genetically modified potatoes. A whopping 78 percent supported mandatory labeling — but respondents were not willing to pay a premium for such labeling. Farming groups opposed to mandatory labeling argue it would make food more expensive, though the sides disagree on how much.

Proponents are hoping Colorado is now ready to make GMO labels mandatory.

"This issue is really resonating with people. They want to know what's in their food," said Kelly Erb, spokeswoman for Right To Know Colorado.

The GMO question is one of four statewide ballot measures Coloradans will decide next month. Dozens more ballot questions are pending in other states on everything from guns to marijuana to gambling.

More than $1 billion dollars will likely be spent on campaigns this year for ballot measures, according to the Center for Public Integrity. That's more than the Republican and Democratic parties have raised collectively this cycle.

CPI looked at television ad spending on all ballot measures nationwide. Other highlights from Colorado:

— A measure to allow casino gambling at a horse racetrack in suburban Denver, Amendment 68, has attracted more TV spending than any ballot question outside California. Supporters have spent about $6.4 million on 5,582 television ads. Opponents have spent about $5.7 million on 6,390 ads.

— A measure to add "unborn human beings" to Colorado criminal code is as lopsided as the GMO measure. Opponents are the only ones on TV. Abortion-rights groups that fear the measure could harm reproductive rights and had spent about $477,000 on television ads through Oct. 20.

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Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt