Pros, Cons of Washington GMO Labeling Initiative Debated

By Josh Long Comments
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OLYMPIA, Wash.—The agricultural industry is investing millions of dollars to defeat a state ballot initiative that would require labels for genetically engineered foods.

Dozens of agricultural groups contend ballot initiative 522 will require misleading labels, increase the costs of groceries and provides exemptions for hundreds of foods even if they are made with or contain genetically modified ingredients.

A similar measure in California was defeated last year after opponents raised $41 million to lobby against Proposition 37.

In Washington, opponents of I-522 have outspent proponents by a factor of approximately three to one. Led by Monsanto Company ($4.59 million), DuPont Pioneer ($3.25 million) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association ($1.75 million), the No on 522 campaign has raised $11.1 million to defeat the November ballot initiative, according to records from Washington's Public Disclosure Commission. In contrast, the campaign in favor of the measure has only raised $3.6 million, with Escondido, Calif.-based Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps leading contributions (nearly $1 million), records show.

George Kimbrell, senior attorney with the Center for Food Safety, contends big agriculture is spending millions to mask the straightforward meaning of I-522: granting "consumers the right to know how their food is produced."

"It asks Washingtonians to vote for public rights or corporate profits," he said in a statement Sept. 18. "Agrichemical companies will spend almost anything to obscure that simple fact."

But groups opposed to the measure declare I-522 is anything but simple or logical. The No on 522 campaign points out many foods would be exempt from the labeling requirements, including alcohol, unpackaged food sold at a restaurant and food from animals that were not genetically engineered even if the animals were fed with food produced through genetic engineering.

Thousands of common grocery products would have to be relabeled unless they were remade with ingredients that are free of genetically engineered substances, the anti-labeling groups gripe. According to the No on 522 campaign, 70-80 percent of groceries today include genetically engineered ingredients that FDA and USDA consider safe.

If I-522 is enacted, the requirements would take effect on July 1, 2015. Violations of I-522 would carry penalties of up to $1,000 per day, enforceable by the state Attorney General or citizens. But a court action could not be commenced unless a person had given at least 60 days notice of the alleged infraction to the alleged violator, Attorney General and Department of Health.

"At the end of the day, I-522 would increase food costs for Washington consumers by hundreds of dollars per year, for what is essentially an unnecessary, badly written law," Mike LaPlant, president of the Washington State Farm Bureau, said in a statement Sept. 5. "Consumers can already choose foods made without genetically engineered ingredients if they prefer, by selecting products labeled 'organic' or 'non-GMO'. I-522 isn't even consistent with these national standards."

Organizations in favor of I-522 maintain consumers have a right to know if they are eating foods that include genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  

"The genetic engineering of plants and animals is an imprecise process and often causes unintended consequences," the initiative states. "Mixing plant, animal, bacterial, and viral genes in combinations that cannot occur in nature produces results that are not always predictable or controllable, and can lead to adverse health or environmental consequences."

But in a recent editorial, Scientific American Magazine argued GMO labeling would perpetuate a misconception: that GMOs jeopardize the health of consumers.

"The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization and the exceptionally vigilant European Union agree that GMOs are just as safe as other foods," wrote the magazine.

Ben & Jerry's, Whole Foods Market, Theo Chocolate and Loki Fish Company are among the businesses that support I-522. Responding to arguments that GMO labeling would increase costs for food manufacturers, Ben & Jerry's co-founder Jerry Greenfield recently told reporters, "The impact on the cost just to put something on your label is essentially zero."

Of the $11.1 million raised in the campaign against I-522, only $1.66 million have been spent to date, according to public records. Of the $3.2 million raised by proponents of the measure, nearly $313,000 have been spent.

In a recent Elway poll, two of three voters said they would vote for I-522. But that could change. In the months leading up to the vote on Prop 37, Californians had widely favored the measure.

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