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Ballot measure to label GMO foods is a tossup in Washington State

Washington State's Initiative 522 would require food manufacturers to label products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It would be a first in the US, and polls show a tight race ahead of Nov. 5 election.

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An employee stocks produce near a sign supporting a ballot initiative in Washington state that would require labeling of foods containing genetically modified crops at the Central Co-op in Seattle, Washington, October 29, 2013.

Jason Redmond/Reuters

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Even though Democrat Peter DeFazio represents the people of Oregon’s Fourth Congressional District, this Election Day he’ll be paying close attention to what voters decide north of the Columbia River in Washington State. If they vote "yes" on Initiative 522 and compel food manufacturers to label products containing genetically modified organisms, Representative DeFazio expects the vote to be a game-changer for the whole country.

“If this initiative should succeed in Washington State, it would change the entire landscape nationally,” he says. “It would sort of break the logjam, and I think that would give us a chance to provide an informative label with national standards.”

By letting consumers know if genetically engineered (GE) organisms are in food they buy, Initiative 522 would do here in Washington what 64 countries – but no other state in the US – have done: mandate immediate labeling.

Voter approval would be a significant setback for the alliance of large seed companies and mass-market food producers that have opposed such “right to know” legislation elsewhere. Last November, for example, many of the same opponents fighting Initiative 522 spent $46 million to defeat California’s Proposition 37, a measure similar to Washington’s.

“The vote was close in California,” says DeFazio. “There are other states considering similar legislation. If it passes in Washington State, I think other states are gonna move forward and pass more of these laws.”

Such a hodgepodge of GE-labeling laws, he says, would create marketplace bedlam as producers scrambled to meet disparate requirements of multiple states. And that situation, he adds, could impel Congress to finally pass a national GMO-labeling law such as his Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, to which DeFazio has recruited 48 supporters in the House.  

He suspects that even 522’s opponents would reluctantly prefer one national law to costly state-by-state chaos. 

In their efforts to prevent DeFazio’s scenario, Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Bayer Cropscience, Dow Agrisciences, Pepsico, General Mills, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and another 30 major food manufacturers have funded their anti-522 campaign with three times the money raised by the initiative’s supporters. Monsanto alone kicked in $5.3 million. With a week remaining before the election, the Vote No on 522 campaigners had raised $21.9 million, a state record for a ballot measure, nearly all from out of state. The campaign lists six individual donors.

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The Yes on 522 forces has banked $8.4 million. Its supporters include 15,000 individual contributions, plus several hundred natural food companies, including Ben & Jerry’s, Whole Foods, Nature’s Path Foods USA, and Clif Bar. The campaign’s biggest donor is Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps: $2.2 million. 

Although Initiative 522 is modeled on laws in those 64 other countries, the “no” campaign has attacked the proposal, arguing that it is poorly written.

“Consumers do have the right to know what’s in their food – but 522 won’t provide that information,” says Dana Bieber, a “no” campaign spokeswoman. “Seventy percent of food would be exempt from the law, including all restaurant food, take-out food, food in hospitals, food in schools, and alcoholic beverages.”

She says the law contains language destined to confound. “If I go into a grocery store and buy a can of pop, that can will have a label saying it contains GMOs,” Ms. Bieber continues. “But if I go to the store’s deli and get the same drink from the soda fountain, it won’t be labeled.”

The “no” side has cataloged a litany of charges against the initiative and has saturated the state’s major media markets with television ads, radio spots, direct mail, and visits to newspaper editorial boards, winning support from all but a handful.

Although both campaigns expect the vote to be close, polls by a local research firm show the “no” campaign gaining: Six weeks ago, 66 percent of likely voters supported Initiative 522. Now, support has dropped to 46 percent, with 42 percent opposed and 12 percent undecided.

Yet absent this initiative and nearly $22 million spent on persuasion, Americans appear to want GE labels on their food, according to polls. “Over the past 25 years, surveys have repeatedly shown that 90 percent of people in the US want GE foods to be labeled,” says Philip Bereano, professor emeritus of technology and public policy at the University of Washington. “Because the surveys go on to show that over two-thirds of people would not buy GE foods, the industry knows the vote in Washington State will be a critical turning point in the profitability of GE food.”

On left-leaning social issues – and GE labeling fits that bill – Washington tends to be a bellwether state. In 1970 it voted to legalize abortion, two years before the US Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision. Last year it was among the first to legalize marijuana and gay marriage. It already has enacted legislation requiring labels on genetically modified salmon.

Now the question is whether millions in cash can turn this blue state green by Tuesday. The endgame is a contest for those remaining undecided voters, and Elizabeth Larter, spokeswoman for Yes on 522, says, “We’re being outspent 4 to 1 in these final days of the campaign.”

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