By Shelby Sebens
PORTLAND Ore. (Reuters) - An initiative requiring mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods in Oregon moved one step closer to the November ballot on Wednesday after advocates said they submitted more than enough qualifying signatures to the state.
New Approach Oregon officials say they submitted more than 155,000 signatures to the Secretary of State's Office in Salem, far exceeding the required 87,213 needed by July 3 to qualify for the ballot.
The state, which must validate the signatures, has until Aug. 2 to determine if it will qualify.
"I don't anticipate that it will take that long," said Tony Green, spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office.
Advocates of labeling say consumers deserve to know if the food they eat contains GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. Many consumer groups question both the safety and the environmental impacts of genetically modified foods.
"Genetically engineered food affects more than the bottom lines of the agriculture industry," retired Environmental Protection Agency scientist Ray Seidler said outside the state capitol, according to a statement from New Approach.
The majority of genetically modified food is altered in a lab to increase tolerance to huge quantities of herbicides, or to produce its own pesticides that cannot be washed off," he said. "The public has a right to know whether or not they are participating in the degradation of our natural environment."
Makers of biotech crops and many large food manufacturers have fought mandatory labeling, arguing that genetically modified crops are not materially different and pose no safety risk. They say labeling would mislead consumers.
Proponents say there is strong support in Oregon for GMO labeling. But Oregonians for Food and Shelter plan to fight the initiative, saying it will hurt Oregon family farmers and small store owners, cost state taxpayers millions of dollars and increase grocery bills for families.
"If the initiative qualifies for the ballot, we expect a broad-based coalition of Oregonians to come together to oppose this measure," Scott Dahlman, executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, said in a statement.
Ballot measures in California in 2012 and last year in Washington state narrowly lost after GMO crop developers, including Monsanto Co., and members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association poured millions of dollars into campaigns to defeat the measures.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler)