Safeway says no

Grocer tries to stifle signature gatherers’ efforts on GMO-labeling petition

Professional signature gatherer Nicolas Guillermo has come to town from the Bay Area to gather signatures, including for the petition to put a measure on the ballot that would require the labeling of food products that contain genetically modified organisms.

Professional signature gatherer Nicolas Guillermo has come to town from the Bay Area to gather signatures, including for the petition to put a measure on the ballot that would require the labeling of food products that contain genetically modified organisms.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

The fine print:
More than 50 countries currently have prohibitions or bans on genetically modified organisms. The United States and Canada do not; nor do those countries require the labeling of food products that contain GMOs.

Signature gatherers hoping to qualify an initiative that would require the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms have reported confrontations with the managers of local Safeway supermarkets.

Chicoan Pamm Larry, who’s been traveling the state to organize the effort, said a local organizer reported last month that the manager of the East Avenue Safeway “blasted her, was very rude and told her if she were seen anywhere near the store he would call the police.”

That was after Amanda Bosschart had filled out permission forms and received the go-ahead from the manager to place volunteer signature-gatherers in front of the store for the next 18 days.

But on the first day, seven hours into the effort, an assistant manager approached a volunteer named Marirose Dunbar and said she had to go, that she wasn’t allowed to be there.

“We had applied and they gave us approval, but all of a sudden the manager is telling us that the corporate office is telling them to get us off the property,” Bosschart said. “They were really clear that we were not allowed on the property. Apparently, Safeway owns that shopping center.”

Over at the Safeway on Mangrove, signature gatherers also met some resistance.

Nicolas Guillermo, a petitioner from the Bay Area pushing a stack of state measures, including the GMO petition, said he was approached by the store’s manager on Friday, April 6, and told to disperse. Ready for such a challenge, he pulled out some documents reflecting state law to show that he was legally entitled to gather signatures at such a venue.

The next day a sign appeared on the sidewalk near where Guillermo was working. It reads: “Valued Customers. Solicitors or petitioners are here without our permission. To encourage them to leave, please do not contribute money or sign petitions. Thank you, Store Management.”

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said the law states a store like Safeway “can do a requirement for reasonable time, place and activity restrictions” when it comes to signature-gatherers soliciting customers.

“If it goes to court, then it’s up to the judge to decide if it is reasonable,” Ramsey said. “If they camp out right in front of the door, impeding people coming in, or a say a sign twirler doing his thing just to the side of the door endangering small kids who risk getting cut with the propeller-like twirling, well then that’s another thing.”

But generally, Ramsey said, a shopping center is considered a town hall or town square where people come and go, and is open to the public.

Art Campion, the manager of the Mangrove Safeway, said he could not comment on the matter and referred all inquiries to corporate headquarters; more specifically NorCal Public Affairs.

A woman named Patty at the NorCal Public Affairs number directed questions to an email address for Wendy Gutshall, the office’s manager of public and government affairs. A response to the CN&R’s email was not received by deadline.

For her part, Larry is leading volunteers across the state looking to collect the required 850,000 signatures by April 22 in order to qualify the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act initiative for the November ballot.

Such foods, the initiative states, are those in which the genetics have been altered through techniques that don’t occur naturally. That includes foods engineered to resist pesticides as a way to increase crop yields, such those created by Monsanto that can endure a spraying of the herbicide Roundup.

The initiative is intended to let consumers know if certain foods have been unnaturally altered.

A group called Stop the Costly Food Labeling Initiative is opposing the ballot-measure effort. SCFL supporters include the Grocery Manufacturers Association, of which Safeway is a member.

The group argues that a labeling regulation is unfair to California farmers and would drive up food prices.

Larry said the purpose of the initiative is to inform consumers.

“It appears that Safeway [locally] doesn’t want its customers to know what they are selling,” she said. “Other Safeways are allowing us to gather signatures, and Raley’s has been most welcoming and inviting.”

“S&S [Produce and Natural Foods] doesn’t usually allow signature gatherers in front of their store, but they did allow us to for this,” she continued. “These people are volunteers and they don’t want to fight. They are giving up their time to do this. Other stores have been supportive as well. Stores like Trader Joe’s, S&S, [Chico Natural Foods] all support healthy foods.”

She said a booth will be set up at the Thursday Night Market tonight and April 19 to collect signatures.

“That is, if the farmers’ market folks will let us,” she joked.

Bosschart said the goal for local volunteers is to gather 10,000 signatures. At this point, she said, they have collected about 7,000.

She is confident at this point that enough valid signatures will be gathered in time to qualify the measure for the November ballot.

“I’ve never been involved with anything like this, and was surprised at how many people are out there gathering signatures for different causes,” she said. “I got involved in this because I’m a longtime advocate for healthy food and against GMO foods and Monsanto.”