The Fate of I-522, Washington State's GM Food Labeling Law

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Next Tuesday, will voters in Washington State pass the first statewide GMO-labeling bill in the U.S., or will a multi-million dollar "anti-marketing" bill lead to I-522's defeat?

The Fate of I-522, Washington State's GM Food Labeling Law

Image via Kelly Shea, The Seattle Times

Late October in a non-election year carries an odd sensation for an Oregon voter. It seems like there is some issue somewhere that merits more attention to than the World Series match-up or how many points the Ducks are going to run up this week. I mean, it appears that the abhorrent Ken Cuccenilli is going to lose the Virginia governor’s race in a big way, and that’s always good. And nearly $1 million has been pumped into the race to fill four open Whatcom County council seats in northern Washington State, which could determine the future site of a shipping terminal that would send millions of tons of Montana and Wyoming coal to Asia. Certainly, the ramifications of the outcome of the Whatcom County race could be interesting, particularly in regards to relations between labor and environmental interests and also for future potential coal shipping terminals in both Longview, WA and Boardman in east Oregon. However, perhaps the one hotly debated topic to be decided next month that will have both an immediate impact in the Pacific Northwest and, potentially, throughout the United States is the outcome of Initiative 522, the ballot initiative that would require the labeling of genetically-modified food products throughout Washington State.

Last week on her “Democracy Now!” radio program, Amy Goodman included a news brief about how “Food Giants Are Spending Millions to Defeat GMO Labeling in Washington State.”:

In Washington state, agribusiness companies and food manufacturers are pouring millions of dollars into an effort to defeat what could become the country’s first law requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods and seeds. Washington residents will vote on Initiative 522 on November 5. But companies opposed to labeling are funding a more than $17 million effort to derail it. Monsanto donated nearly $5 million, and DuPont has given more than $3 million, while Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Nestle have dedicated more than $1 million each. Labeling supporters have raised less than a third of their opponents; their largest donor is Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. A recent New York Times poll found 93 percent of Americans want labels on food containing GMOs. Sixty-four countries require it.

My initial response was that of no surprise, considering the repeated outcome of every statewide proposed GM-labeling initiative, which has always seen defeat by the hands of voters at the ballot box. Oregon had its opportunity over a decade ago with Measure 27, but voters were convinced by an opposition campaign complete with television commercials showing red tape unfurling from grocery store shelves to reject the GM-labeling law. An even more recent example is Proposition 37, last year’s ballot measure in California, in which the initiative to require labeling of food products that included genetically-modified organisms enjoyed nearly a 20-point spread of approval in early September of 2012, only to lose by a handful of points two months later. So when Amy Goodman stated that “agribusiness companies and food manufacturers” are pumping in millions of dollars to defeat Washington’s GM-labeling initiative, the only reaction I could muster is “Of course they are.”

At the same time, while this bit of news may not be all together shocking, it gave me pause as the idea of private companies shelling out millions in an effort to protect potential consumers from their product simply flies in the face of market-style capitalism. I mean, if agribusiness and food manufacturers go through the tedious (and expensive!) process of a product’s research & development, design and construction, and eventual mass manufacturing, why would they then spend a small fortune in what is tantamount to an “anti-marketing campaign?” Typically, companies are proud of the intellectual property that they sink a ton of money and sweat equity into developing, producing, and eventually marketing. (Think: pharmaceuticals.) And yet, when it comes to the companies that want you to consume their genetically-modified food products, they’d prefer if you had no knowledge whatsoever. Can you imagine an episode of “Mad Men” in which advertising whiz Don Draper is hired by a company to figure out a campaign to not sell their product? While such an idea might seem laughable, that is exactly what is occurring in the tony offices of the public relation companies that are consulting the agribusiness and food manufacturers that are seeking to defeat I-522.

I-522 Would Label, Not Ban, Genetically-Modified Food Products in Washington State

To be clear, unlike the GMO Free Jackson County initiative to be decided next year in southern Willamette Valley, Washington’s I-522 would not pass a state-wide ban on genetically-modified food products but would only instead require the labeling of these products. Virtually all of the packaged and processed food products you purchase in a grocery store include a list of ingredients, and I-522 would only require a slight addition to this ingredient list. Unless you are a very conscientious shopper, it is practically impossible to purchase processed food products that don’t include artificial ingredients that aren’t manufactured to some extent. Anyone who can remember the chapter in Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” in which he visits New Jersey’s International Flavors & Fragrances, the world’s largest manufacturer of artificial flavor company, knows what I’m talking about. A package of Doritos-brand tortilla chips clearly states that the product includes maltodextrin, disodium phosphate, sodium caseinate, along with a host of other ingredients that I would loathe to spell at a spelling bee. And yet, despite publicly listing a number of ingredients that nobody has any idea what they are or what they do, this does not prevent Doritos from being one of the top-selling brands of snack chips throughout the country. Although I am certainly an advocate the practice of healthy eating habits and avoiding high-caloric snack food, I am totally fine with Doritos selling products that include the ingredients they list. Hey, if you enjoy a little yellow food coloring with your snack food, go right ahead. And if you want to avoid these products, the list of ingredients helps you steer the heck away from them.

However, for some reason, despite knowing the list of 30-some ingredients in a package of snack chips, I’m not supposed to know if the apple I purchase has a genetically-modified enzyme that prevents it from browning after being exposed to oxygen? Can someone explain this to me?

"Consumers should have a choice!"

“We believe that consumers should be able to buy the things that they want,” says Elizabeth Larter, the Communications Director for Yes on I-522, a broad-based coalition of Washington State public health, conservation, and labor interest groups seeking to ensure the initiative’s passing next month. “There are all ready labeling requirements that inform the consumer if whether there is low or no fat, if there are minerals or allergens, and the source of origin for a product. We believe I-522 is standing up for a consumer’s right to choose.”

I first spoke with Larter in the spring of 2013, in the nascent days of the Yes on I-522 campaign, in which the grassroots effort had raised nearly $1 million in its first two weeks. I brought up the most effective argument that has been raised by opponents of GM-labeling efforts, which is the effect such labeling will have on food producers and, ultimately, consumers. This argument is a simple frame: increased labeling requirements equal increased food costs—and why would the State want to saddle families on a budget with increased food costs in today’s economic climate? To refute this frame, Larter refers to Arran Stephens, the Founder and President of Nature’s Path, who points out that food producers regularly update the packaging of their food products—it’s an accepted cost of doing business.

According to Stephens: “Claims that labeling GMOs would significantly increase the price of food for consumers just aren’t true. Companies would certainly be updating their packaging for other reasons within the 18 months they will be given to comply with the new law, and could simply make the additional GMO labeling changes at the same time.”

It's Not How Food Is Labeled, But How Food Is Produced

Dana Bieber, the spokesperson for the No on I-522 campaign, argues that the initiative’s focus on labeling costs is a red herring. “The increase in food costs isn’t due to relabeling products to comply with the law,” Bieber explains. “Instead, the law will force companies to entirely remake their food with more expensive non-GE products and avoid having their product be given what would be a tantamount to a warning label.”

Bieber cites a Huffington Post article from April 2012 written by Dr. Joseph Mercola in support of Proposition 37 in which he wrote that, if passed, California’s GE labeling law would “be the equivalent of a skull and crossbones.” Dr. Mecola proudly lays claim to have been the largest personal contributor in support of Proposition 37 in California, and with $250,000 donated in support of I-522 by September 30, his Illinois-based Health Resources is one of the top five donors in support of Washington’s GMO-labeling initiative. (Note of potential interest to Portland voters: Mercola is also one of the leading anti-fluoride funders around the country, with its website proudly displaying a video used to help defeat the flouridification of the Bull Run reservoir this past spring.)

While I support the listing of any potential genetically-modified ingredients on a food product, the suggestion that the labeling of these products should be tantamount to skull-and-crossbones borders on histrionics. Unlike the undisputed negative health effects of cigarettes—in which the warning labels in the United States pale in comparison to the pictures of diseased lungs plastered on the package of tobacco products in Canada—the health impact regarding the consumption of genetically-engineered food products has yet to be determined. Considering the relatively recent adoption of genetically-modified food products in today’s current industrial food system, are any potential negative health effects associated with the consumption of genetically-modified food products, may not be seen for decades to come.

(To be clear: I was unable to find any reference to “skull-and-crossbones” on the Yes on 522 website, and campaign also does not weigh in on the potential negative health effects of GM-food products, providing instead the direct text of the initiative which lists the ability to help track potential health effects of consuming genetically-engineered foods and also the health risks due to the increased use of toxic herbicides.)

Even though Bieber believes that the focus on the costs of labeling is mis-leading, she also argues that the pro-522 campaign’s insistence that GM-products would only be included on the list of ingredients does not merit close scrutiny. “I have a bottle of organic salad dressing in my hand,” Bieber describes over the phone. “Included on the list of ingredients is soybean oil. Now, while its probably likely that the initial soybean was genetically-engineered, the processed soybean oil would not include any GM products. And yet, under I-522, my organic salad dressing would need to include a label saying that it “may” contain GE products.”

“How does a label saying that a product “may” include GE products help inform a consumer? Although the supporters of I-522 argue that they simply want shoppers to know what’s in their food, such a label as this would be misleading and confusing. It’s very clear that the intention behind I-522 is to create a skull-and-crossbones label for genetically-modified food products.”

"A highly competitive campaign--with a different result!"

When I spoke with Elizabeth Larter and the Yes on I-522 campaign last April, there had yet to be any initial poll results showing support or opposition by Washington voters to the proposed GM-labeling initiative. While Larter expressed cautious optimism for the campaign’s success, she was aware that challenges awaited the campaign as Election Day got closer. “This is going to be a highly competitive campaign that’s going to receive national attention. But we feel that the result is going to be different than California, as we have an on-the-ground state operation that helped run Washington’s successful pro-gay marriage campaign.”

In late October, less than a week away from voters in the Evergreen State poised to make a decision on the outcome of I-522, Larter’s previous comments look eerily prescient. The most recent poll before the barrage of anti i-522 advertising began in early September showed strong support for I-522, with 66% of polled likely voters indicating approving of the bill’s passage. Now, after two months of nonstop advertising from a well-funded (and potentially illegally-funded) opposition, the Yes on I-522 is currently on top by four points—virtually tied, considering the five-point margin of error from Seattle pollster Stuart Elway. Although it appears that the scenario that occurred a year ago in California is set to repeat itself in Washington, but Larter continues to believe in a different outcome than that of Proposition 37.

“While it’s true we’re not up by 66%, consider that at this time last year Prop 37 was trailing by eleven points,” Larter says. “I-522 is still up in the polls, despite being outspent 4-to-1 by an opposition that pretty much includes the Grocery Manufacturing Associating, a handful of pesticide companies, and less than ten individual donors.”

Which Side Has More Support?

Bieber counters Larter’s claim by demonstrating the strong show of support in opposition to the proposed GM-labeling initiative, in particular from the state’s agricultural interests. “If Washington farmers were to benefit from the passage of this bill, then why has every single agricultural industry signed on in opposition?” Bieber asks. “The coalition in opposition to I-522 represents tens of thousands of farmers, represented by the Washington Farm Bureau, Washington Association of Wheat Farmers, and the Washington Asparagus Council.”

The support by Washington’s Wheat Farmers in opposition to I-522 might be a bit of a surprise, considering the ruinous economic impact that a rogue strain of Monsanto GM-wheat on a Columbia Valley farm caused to Oregon’s wheat industry this past spring. “Nothing in I-522 would’ve prevented the discovery and impact that a similar strain of GM-wheat would've had in Washington,” Bieber explains. “The Washington Association of Wheat Growers urged a “No” vote on I-522 prior to the discovery of the GM-wheat strain Oregon, and continued urging a “No” vote afterwards.”

For comparison’s sake, Larter references an analysis conducted by The Stranger using data collected from the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, which shows that over 13,000 contributors have supported the Yes on I-522 campaign. “This does not include the 350,000 registered voters who signed to get this initiative on the ballot, the highest number of ballot signatures in the state’s history.” Of course, with more than $27 million spent by both sides combined by the end of October, I-522 has all ready secured itself as the most expensive initiative ballot fight in Washington’s history!

“Washington voters, like Oregon, are smart voters," Larter says. "The “No” side is running the same campaign that they did in California--which just turned out to simply be too expensive to match. This time it’s not going to pass, simply because Washington voters want to know what’s in their food!”

Will Washington Voters Buck a Trend For the Second Year in a Row?

Considering that every time voters have rejected state-wide GM-labeling laws every time they’ve had a chance, it is easy to be skeptical regarding the passage of I-522 next Tuesday. However, at one point the same thing could be said about statewide initiatives to legalize same-sex marriage. But with the passage of same-sex marriage initiatives in Minnesota and Washington(!!!) in 2012, an indication that corner was turned regarding the increased acceptance of gay marriage by voters and opening up the doors for same-sex marriage initiatives to be passed in the 2013-14 election cycle—including, of course, Oregon United for Marriage.

Will voters in Washington State continue this streak for buck an accepted trend for the second year in a row, becoming the first state in the U.S. to pass a GM-labeling law? The results next Tuesday will inform us of the inherent maverick nature of Washington voters!

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