Bioengineered labeling initiative suffering another setback

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — While results from the Washington state election of Nov. 5 won’t be certified until Nov. 26, it seemed certain that Initiative 522, which would have required the labeling of bioengineered food sold at retail in the state, will go down to defeat. As of Nov. 12, the Washington secretary of state’s tally for the initiative was 854,330 opposed (51.75% of the ballots counted) to 796,640 in favor (48.25%). The margin has narrowed since election night. The initial tally after the polls closed on Nov. 5 indicated 55% of Washington voters rejected the measure compared with 45% in favor. Initiative 522 (I-522) proponents have yet to concede defeat, but most observers expected the indicated rejection of the measure will stand.

It would be the second major setback dealt to labeling advocates at the polls in the past several months. Last year, California voters narrowly defeated a similar initiative.  

Under I-522, as of July 1, 2015, any food produced using “genetic engineering” that was not labeled as required in the measure would have been considered misbranded. Raw agricultural products would have had to be labeled conspicuously with the words “genetically engineered.” Packaged processed foods would have had to be labeled conspicuously with the words “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering.”

The proposal would have exempted alcoholic beverages; certified organic foods; foods not produced using bioengineering, as certified by approved independent organization; foods served in restaurants or in food service establishments; “medical food,” and foods consisting of or derived from animals that themselves had not been bioengineered, regardless of whether the animal had been fed any bioengineered food; and processed foods produced using bioengineered processing aids or enzymes. Processed foods containing small amounts of bioengineered materials would have been exempt until July 1, 2019.

The measure also would have required all bioengineered seeds and seed stock to have been labeled conspicuously with words “genetically engineered” or “produced with genetic engineering” beginning July 1, 2015.

The Washington Department of Health would have been empowered to bring action to enforce the labeling requirements. Alternatively, after giving a 60-day notice, any private individual would have been allowed to bring an action in superior court to enjoin a person alleged to be violating the measure, and potentially recover cost and attorney fees for the action.

The state estimated the cost to government for rulemaking, inspection and compliance as well as education and technical assistance to the food industry over six fiscal years at $2,168,000. The state further indicated the cost for Department of Health contracting with a private laboratory for product sampling and testing would have cost an additional $1,200,000 over six fiscal years.

Dana Bieber, speaking on behalf of the No On 522 campaign, which coordinated efforts of initiative opponents, said, “This is a clear victory for Washington consumers, taxpayers and family farmers across our state. Washington voters have soundly rejected this badly written and deceptive initiative.”

Pamela G. Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said, “We are pleased that the voters of Washington State rejected I-522 by a significant margin. I-522 was a complex and costly proposal that would have misled consumers, raised the price of groceries for Washington families and done nothing to improve food safety.

“The food and beverage industry is committed to providing consumers with a wide array of safe and affordable food and beverage choices. Genetically modified food ingredients (G.M.O.s) are safe, good for the environment, reduce the cost of food and help feed a growing global population of seven billion. Because a 50-state patchwork of G.M.O. labeling laws would be confusing and costly to consumers, G.M.A. will advocate for a federal solution that will protect consumers by ensuring that the Food and Drug Administration, America’s leading food safety authority, sets national standards for the safety and labeling of products made with G.M.O. ingredients. Our country’s labeling laws have been and should continue to be based on health, safety and nutritional content.”

Pre-election polls in Washington showed a marked shift in how the public viewed the measure as both proponents and opponents unleashed massive campaigns on television and through other mass media. Polls in September found 66% of voters backed the measure, but by Oct. 31, polls showed the measure was leading by just four percentage points with 12% of voters undecided. I-522 opponents raised more than $22 million to defeat the measure, while I-522 supporters raised 7.8 million to advance it.

In the heat of the media blitz, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, citing campaign disclosure laws, sued the G.M.A. to divulge the identities of members who sent donations to the G.M.A. for use by the No On 522 campaign. The G.M.A. quickly took steps to comply with state law by establishing a political action committee with the requisite transparency.

As in California, contributors to the effort to require labeling of bioengineered foods included the Center for Food Safety and various organic food organizations and companies.

Oregon anti-bioengineering activists indicated they would proceed with efforts to place a bioengineered food labeling measure on that state’s ballot in 2014 regardless of the outcome in Washington.

“We’re trying to learn from Washington and California,” said Scott Bales, director of G.M.O. Free Oregon. “At the moment, I’m thinking we’re not going to be alone in November. There will be other states doing it besides us.”

George Kimbrell, a senior attorney in the Portland office of the Center for Food Safety, said, “I don’t see any reason at all to change strategy. The only thing that is causing us to narrowly lose these initiatives is the tidal wave of money that the chemical companies are spending.”

Labeling advocates across the country also were expected to press their case before state legislatures. The Connecticut legislature in June enacted a law requiring products “produced with genetic engineering” to be labeled. But the law will not take effect unless four other Northeastern states with a total population of more than 20 million, including at least one state that shares a border with Connecticut, pass similar legislation. The Maine legislature passed a similar measure.

“We expect to see legislative proposals around the country, and we will continue to work to educate and engage with legislators,” said Louis Finkel, the G.M.A.’s executive vice-president for government affairs.
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