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Washington GMO Labeling Fight Creeps Closer

Measure requiring GMO labeling will appear on ballots in Washington state November 5

Published on: Oct 22, 2013

Washington voters on November 5 will decide if the state should require labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms – a proposition that could have national implications if approved.

The measure, called Initiative 522, would require most raw agricultural commodities, processed foods, seeds and seed stocks to be labeled as genetically engineered when offered for retail sale, if produced using genetic engineering as defined.  

Meat and dairy raised on a diet of GM feed would be excluded from the labeling requirement, as would some imported foods.

I-522 joins a growing list of labeling efforts that have taken the form of ballot measures and legislative votes in several U.S. states, including California's narrowly-defeated 2012 measure, Proposition 37. Like Prop 37, I-522 has also brought along multi-million dollar advertising campaigns and strong opinions about the future of GMOs and food labeling.

Measure requiring GMO labeling will appear on ballots in Washington state November 5
Measure requiring GMO labeling will appear on ballots in Washington state November 5

Yes on 522

Supporters of the initiative, like those for California's Proposition 37, claim that a yes vote on 522 would give consumers "more control" over their shopping decisions.

The group, launched in April, gathered more than 350,000 signatures on its petition to get the initiative on the ballot, and boasts several million dollars in campaign contributions.

Industry supporters include CC Natural Markets, Marlene's Market, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, Nature's Path, Ben & Jerry's, Clif Bar, Amy's Kitchen, and Whole Foods, which earlier this year committed to labeling GMO products in its stores within five years.

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While the group does not specifically acknowledge studies showing no effects of GM foods, the group calls labeling an "important first step" in giving shoppers the right to know what is included in the foods they buy.

No 522

In contrast, opposition group No 522 says labeling already exists, noting that if shoppers prefer foods made without GM ingredients, they can purchase products labeled with "organic" or "non-GMO."

Additionally, the group says I-522 would impose extra costs on food producers that would be passed to consumers. Farmers, the group adds, would be subject to a competitive disadvantage because they would be discouraged from using GM crops that use fewer inputs and therefore have economic and environmental benefits.

Supporters of the No 522 campaign include the Washington State Farm Bureau, Washington Cattlemen's Association, Washington State Dairy Federation, and the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, among others.

Organizations also supporting a no vote on the measure include the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroScience, and BASF.

Hefty donations

Part of the discussion, too, is the amount of money spent by each side to publicize its opinion. According to data prepared by MapLight, committees supporting I-522 have collected a total of $5.3 million, while committees opposing I-522 have collected $17.2 million as of October 17.

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Those tallies are compared to 2012 funding collections for Proposition 37, which reached $9.2 million in support of the measure and $46 million in opposition.

Illegal lobbying efforts?

Aside from the continued battle that is the GMO discussion, groups lobbying against the measure were dealt a heavy blow last week when the State Attorney General's office hit the Grocery Manufacturer's Association with a money laundering lawsuit.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced the suit Wednesday, alleging that GMA – which represents more than 300 food and beverage companies – had collected and spent more than $7 million on the campaign while shielding the identity of its contributors.

The AG further explains that GMA established the "Defense of Brands Strategic Account," and then asked members to pay assessments that would be used to oppose I-522. That action skirts a regulation that requires public disclosure of the origin of lobbying dollars.

According to an AG statement, the suit stemmed from a citizen action letter received by the Attorney General's Office in late August.

In response, GMA said it was "looking into the complaint and the specific allegations it contains." GMA later said it would voluntarily establish a Washington State political committee and to file reports with the Washington State Public Disclosure Committee to allow the campaign to refocus on important issues related to I-522.

"GMA has cooperated fully with the Public Disclosure Commission and the Attorney General throughout their investigation, and will continue to engage state authorities in a constructive dialogue in the weeks and months ahead," the group noted in a statement. 

Read more about GM labeling:
GMO Labeling Question Still Alive
Seed Trade Association, Ag Retailers Concerned About GMO Labeling Bill
Consumer Group Bumps Up Presence After GMO Labeling Defeat
Prop. 37 Blazes Way for GMO Labeling