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Rockin' the GE Vote

06.nov.02, Ben Chapman With files from Lisa Mathiasen, Commentary by the Food Safety Network

Milk, it does a body good. Calcium, protein and bovine growth hormones. Contrary to a Maritime Dairy Association advertisement, there are bovine growth hormones in all milk, including that from Canadian heifers. It's natural. Perhaps the group is referring to a synthetic, genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, which has been widely used in the U.S. for almost a decade, has undoubtedly been used in some Canadian dairy cattle, is safe and is indistinguishable from the naturally occurring version.
But by not distinguishing between evidence-based and fictional risks in advertising and labeling, the Maritime Dairy Association is promoting misinformation bordering on hucksterism in the grocery aisles.
Fortunately, Tuesday's American elections and a Canadian parliamentary decision have reduced, or abated, ever so slightly, the rise of fictional claims on food labels.
Voters in Oregon yesterday defeated Measure 27, a proposed law which "Requires Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods Sold or Distributed In or From Oregon" by a 3-1 margin, demonstrating that Oregon is more that just a beautiful, lush state in the northwest somewhere where "The Goonies" was based.
Supporters of the Measure,, said that Measure 27 was a people's initiative that would address concerns about the uncertain safety of GE foods that are untested and pushed on North Americans by evil corporations. Even Sir Paul McCartney chimed in, supporting Measure 27 through his association with the UK-based Friends of the Earth.
And much will be made of a coalition of the agriculture, food processing and restaurant industries opposed to the measure, a group that spent upwards of $5 million on the No campaign. Except that had the measure passed, it would have set a dangerous precedent.
The people of Oregon declared Tuesday there was no need to label their Baby Ruth Bars and Dr. Pepper with something like, may contain high fructose corn syrup from genetically engineered corn.
But don't 93 per cent of Americans want mandatory labeling on GE foods? Canadians too?
Some do, but apparently not a majority. Perhaps that is because when citizens actually contemplate the options and alternatives of labeling, we should stick with health and safety, and, rather than imposing a preference on all, leave consumer choices such as GE-free to a voluntary, market-driven system.
And then there is potential for consumer fraud through unsubstantiated claims.
During a recent trip to Australia and New Zealand, a visit to the grocery store provided a couple of labeling chuckles, I was able to purchase both organic vegetarian eggs and organic water. I wasn't exactly sure what either of the two meant; the organic/natural push made things confusing for this visiting Canadian. It turns out that the eggs were produced by chickens that had been fed only grain (deeming the eggs as vegetarian?) and the water was harvested/drilled/collected in an organic way, certified by the Biological Farmer's Association.
Australia and New Zealand's mandatory labelling of any foods containing more than 1% GE began last year. So what isn't labeled organic or natural is labeled does not contain GMO's (they prefer the more confusing term of genetically modified organisms). What wasn't found in the stores were items that were labeled "Contains GE ingredients". Labelling is not about choice; Greenpeace and other activist groups state plainly in their literature that the products of genetic engineering may cause some unknown, theoretical health or environmental harm and should therefore be banned. However, in the absence of a ban, everything should be labelled to provide consumer choice -- and that will produce a de facto ban.
Consumer choice? What about the choice to avoid real health risks? Last week the U.S. banned the importation of Mexican cantaloupes citing a handful of recent salmonella outbreaks traced to improper growing conditions and poor irrigation water. No public word on what Canadian regulators are contemplating about this real health issue.
But perhaps they'll be able to find some time, now that MP Charles Caccia's private member's bill for the mandatory labeling of GE crops in Canada has been deemed not voteable. For practical purposes, the Bill won't be able to be reintroduced until the next session of parliament, which could be at least a year.
Any GE food that has been demonstrated to cause a health and safety issue is already required to be labeled. The Canadian General Standards Board will soon release rules to guide the voluntary labeling of GE or GE-free foods, to hopefully limit the amount of marketing nonsense already proliferating in North American grocery stores.
A proponent of GE labeling from day one, David Suzuki, launched his cross-Canada Human Element tour in Toronto this week with popular artists (if Randy Bachman can still be called one) to promote the balance of humans with the ecosystem. Undoubtedly, ex-geneticist will yet again attack the lack of mandatory GE labeling in Canada, but this time he'll be taking a page out of Oregon's voteyesfor27 book, getting a little help from your friends.
I've got some advice for Mr. McCartney and Mr. Suzki's artists: In the words of Sir Paul himself, "Get back to where you once belonged". That place is the recording studio, Ringo is still around, crank out some tunes and stay out of the labeling issue, there are enough problems there already.

During a recent trip to Australia and New Zealand, a visit to the grocery store provided a couple of labeling chuckles, I was able to purchase both organic vegetarian eggs and organic water.

Ben Chapman and Lisa Mathiasen are Graduate Researchers with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guleph, Ontario,Canada.