Voters in Oregon are being given the opportunity to decide whether food companies should be required to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients.

Measure 27, which will be the first of its kind to go before US voters, was put on the list of measures to face the vote after organisers collected a petition of over 100,000 signatures.

Currently, around 70% of processed food in the US contains genetically modified corn or soybeans or another GM crop, according to food industry groups. National polls have shown that the majority of consumers would like food labels to show information about GM ingredients.

The campaigns for and against the measure are well under way. The food and crop-biotechnology industries have formed a coalition to campaign against the measure. Calling themselves the Coalition Against the Costly Labelling Law, the group is said to have raised US$4.6m in cash in the seven weeks ended 20 September. Most of the money (around $3.7m) was given by a pesticide and crop biotechnology trade group, CropLife International. Much of the remainder of the money came from food companies, including PepsiCo, Kellogg, ConAgra Foods, Sara Lee, H.J. Heinz and General Mills.
Besides not wanting the extra costs that labelling would incur, the Coalition’s members fear that labels would stigmatise their products. But Donna Harris, who formed the pro-labelling group Oregon Concerned Citizens for Safe Foods, argues that if the food is safe and the technology is great, companies should have no problem with labelling the food and giving consumers a choice. The group has raised around $84,000 to help with their campaign, mainly from donations and loans, reported the Wall Street Journal.

If the Oregon measure is passed, all food sold in Oregon, along with food made or stored in Oregon destined for other US states, would require the labels.

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US food companies are worried that it will be too hard to separate the products destined for Oregon from the products going elsewhere in the US, in order to apply the new labels. They may not have to worry however. Supporters of labelling in seven other states who are interested in launching similar proposals have already got in touch with the organisers of the Oregon measure. If the measure is passed in Oregon, and survives the court challenges that are likely to follow, it may encourage other states to join in.