Oregon voters narrowly reject GMO labeling measure

PORTLAND — Oregon voters have narrowly rejected the labeling of genetically modified foods following the most expensive ballot-measure campaign in state history.

Residents voted 49.5 to 50.5 against the measure, which would have required manufacturers, retailers and suppliers to label raw or packaged foods produced entirely or partially by genetic engineering. As of Wednesday morning, the difference was about 13,000 votes.

Colorado voters on Tuesday also rejected mandatory labels on genetically modified foods, known as GMOs.

Opponents of the measures in both states included some of the world's largest food producers and biotech companies, including Monsanto, which lauded the defeat of Oregon's Measure 92.

"We're pleased that Oregon's farmers, food producers, retailers and especially consumers will not be subject to this costly measure and will not be unnecessarily economically impacted by the burden these labels would create," company spokeswoman Charla Lord said.

Opponents raised about $20 million in Oregon, while the campaign to pass Measure 92 surpassed $7.5 million in donations.

Over the past two years, voters in California and Washington state turned down similar measures. In both cases, the measures were defeated by a slim margin, about 2 percentage points.

Advocates of GMO labeling said they felt like they made some progress.

"This is a social movement that's gaining power, as people become more aware of how their food is produced," said George Kimbrell, a senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety. "So there's great success there regardless of the outcome of the measure."

The measure was popular in the cities: 62 percent of voters in Portland's Multnomah County supported it, along with 57 percent in Lane, which includes Eugene, and 55 percent in Jackson, home to Medford.

A majority of voters in eight of Oregon's 36 counties favored the mandate.

But the measure was overwhelmingly opposed in much of rural Oregon.

"Voters... understood that Measure 92 would have burdened our state's family farmers and food producers with costly new compliance regulations and red tape," said Pat McCormick, spokesman for the No on 92 Coalition. The coalition put out several TV ads claiming farmers would be negatively affected if the measure passed.

The measure would have required packaging that included the words "Produced With Genetic Engineering" or "Partially Produced With Genetic Engineering." Though the labels were not a warning, opponents said they feared the words would spook consumers.

Oregon voters also defeated a labeling measure in 2002, when GMO labeling was less on the public radar. Back then, the measure lost by a landslide, 70 to 30 percent.

The Vermont Legislature approved a labeling bill that's set to take effect in 2016.

More than 60 other countries have GMO labeling laws, including the entire European Union.

Earlier this year, voters in Jackson and Josephing counties approved bans on genetically engineered crops, providing evidence that the issue has gained traction outside liberal Portland.

Though genetically engineered crops are common and no mainstream science has shown they are unsafe, opponents contend GMOs are still experimental and promote the use of pesticides. They say more testing is needed and people have a right to know what's in their food.

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