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Grocery quandary

For U.S.shoppers, a lack of labels limits choice on biotech products

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Former biology researcher Els Cooperrider ... Former biology researcher Els Cooperrider, who runs a Ukiah organic restaurant and brew pub, relaxes at her cabin, which has no phone or electricity. She masterminded the ballot initiative that outlawed growing genetically modified organisms in Mendocino County. Renée C. Byer

Household term: GMO

Filling the information void in her community was what Els Cooperrider had in mind when she dreamed up a ballot initiative to outlaw growing genetically modified organisms in Mendocino County.

To her amazement, the measure passed in March, making Mendocino the nation's first community to ban genetically modified organisms - GMOs.

“I wasn't thinking we could pass such a thing. I was just thinking about educating the public,” said Cooperrider, the snowy-haired matriarch of a family-owned .organic-foods restaurant and brew pub in Ukiah.

A former biology researcher who has watched the use of DNA splicing spread since its genesis in the 1970s, Cooperrider mistrusts the technology.

“You take a piece of DNA and forcibly insert it,” she said, “you're going to mess something up.”

Early on, people were mystified by the “GMO Free Mendocino” signs posted along roadsides and in shop windows. Campaign volunteer Adam Gaska remembers being asked, “What the hell is a guh-MOE?”

Gaska sagged. If residents of Mendocino, which prides itself on being socially progressive, don't know the ABCs of food biotechnology, he thought, what about the rest of America?

Over the next three months, Gaska and other volunteers by the scores spread out across the lush hills and valleys of the community, talking to their neighbors, hoping to tap the independent spirit that draws people to the North Coast. The fight was hot. The industry-supported opposition outspent proponents of the ban 5-to-1. Radio airwaves overflowed with advertisements. By the end, the combined letters G-M-O had become a household term. And, for 56 percent of voters, an unwelcome concept.

- Edie Lau


Little knowledge

A survey in January commissioned by the International FoodInformation Council - a public relations arm of the food, beverage and agriculture industry - found that 63 percent of adults had heard or read little to nothing about food biotechnology.

Talk to shoppers outside the Natomas Raley's supermarket and you'll hear a similar refrain.

Among a handful of people interviewed there by The Bee this spring, half said they knew nothing about food biotechnology, genetic engineering, genetically modified organisms or “Frankenfood,” the nickname popular among opponents.

Debra Hilton, a 27-year-old living in Rio Linda, said working three jobs leaves her too busy to pay attention to such things.

“They should have to label it,” said Angie Dickson, a 29-year-old, who at the time was an expectant mother on leave from her job at an insurance office. Dickson said she habitually reads the fine print on packaging to avoid hydrogenated oils and other unhealthy ingredients.

The absence of labels for bioengineered ingredients and low consumer awareness are inter.twined. Without labels, consumers tend not to know about the issue, so they are unlikely to press for labeling.

Efficiency lost

The standard food and biotechnology industry argument against labeling is that segregating biotech from conventional crops is too expensive. But segregation is happening anyway, driven by overseas regulations and the demands of foreign buyers.

The system for producing products in this new, awkwardly named category of “identity-preserved non-GMO” does cost some money. But it's nominal in the grand scheme of things, according to David Bullock, an associate professor specializing in agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois.

Bullock said the greatest expense - and one that's hard to quantify - comes from lost efficiency. Now there are two streams of soy products and two streams of corn products where once there was one of each. All of a sudden, storage containers, whether silos, grain elevators or the holds of ships, are too big.

“The infrastructure is not right,” Bullock said. But, he added, “It's not an economic disaster.”

The real barrier to labeling biotech crops in the United States may be more formidable than upfront cost: fear. The food industry fears that mandatory labels would act as scarlet letters, driving away fearful shoppers.

Bugles are a case in point.

The crunchy, salty snack shaped like a horn is made from corn by General Mills. In the United States, at least some of the corn likely is bioengineered. In Europe, the company pays extra to be sure the corn is not genetically modified, so the Bugles don't have to be labeled.

Ron Olson, General Mills vice president for grain operations, said he doesn't know what would happen if Bugles were labeled “contains GM” in the United States. Nor does he care to find out.

“At this point in time,” he said, “we're not willing to risk the brand.”


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