News Column

GMO Food Labeling Effort Trails in Washington State

November 6, 2013

By Brad Shannon, The Olympian (Olympia, Wash.)

Washington voters were rejecting a citizen initiative Tuesday to make the Evergreen State first to require "clear and conspicuous" labeling of genetically modified and engineered foods sold in grocery stores starting in 2015.

In an election watched carefully by the national food industry and its critics, early vote counts showed Initiative 522 was losing by fewer than 100,000 votes. With about 2 million voters expected to turn out in the vote-by-mail election, roughly half of ballots remained to be counted statewide.

The No on 522 campaign did not immediately comment, but backers of the labeling campaign were refusing to concede.

"This race, as we thought, is too close to call," Yes on 522 spokeswoman Elizabeth Larter insisted shortly after the first batch of votes was counted. "We're optimistic about the vote to be tabulated over the next couple of days. ... There's a lot of voters to come in from King County."

The campaign fight over I-522 was one of the most expensive in state history -- with No on 522 raising $22 million almost entirely from food, agriculture and biotech interests located out of state. That paid for an avalanche of television, newspaper and online advertisements that warned the measure would be costly to consumers, misleading and confusing.

The ad tactics mirrored the strategy that sank a similar labeling effort in California one year ago. In both cases early polling showed labeling measures passing but the tide turned as the ad barrages wore on.

The Yes on 522 campaign raised nearly $7.9 million, including large contributions from whole foods advocates, such as Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps of California, and its "right to know" message echoed last year's pro-labeling campaign in California.

But critics hammered away at what appeared to be inconsistencies in the labeling, with products such as restaurant meals and beverages exempt from the labeling mandate.

I-522 proposed mandatory labels on the front of food packages that say a product is made partially using genetic engineering or in the case of fresh foods and seeds that it is genetically engineered. Activists seeking labeling laws are pushing for action in about two-dozen other states, and the outcome in Washington was seen as a harbinger of how the fight might go elsewhere.

The national Grocery Manufacturers Association was the single largest donor to the opposition, giving more than $11 million, and agribusiness firm Monsanto gave in excess of $5 million more. GMA was sued by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson for collecting its money without identifying its sources -- an error remedied in part when GMA registered as a political committee and disclosed that PepsiCo gave $2.35 million while Nestle USA and The Cola-Cola Co. each donated more than $1.5 million.

Original headline: Effort failing to put GMO labels on food


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Source: (c)2013 The Olympian (Olympia, Wash.) Distributed by MCT Information Services