SEATTLE — A ballot measure in next week’s election will give voters here the chance to make Washington the first state to require the labeling of genetically engineered foods. But the question of whether to put a few words on a package has touched off a surprisingly high-stakes, big-dollar fight with potential implications for other states.
Large contributions from multinational food companies, mostly in opposition to the measure, have surged into the state, making this one of the most expensive initiative battles in Washington’s history, totaling almost $29 million. And both sides say that if it passes, the measure, known as Initiative 522, could spur other states to similar action.
Companies like the big seed company Monsanto, General Mills, Pepsi and Kellogg are fighting the measure through contributions to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, outspending supporters by about three to one. Supporters, however, have their own economic heft, notably the support of Whole Foods, which has been working closely with the staff of the Yes on 522 campaign group, and the organic farming industry, which would be exempt from the measure.
Modifying the genes of food crops to increase yield or resistance to pests or herbicides has become a fixture of global agriculture. Skeptics say the safety record for such products is unclear, or that modified foods have not been around long enough for certainty.
In Washington, transparency and cost have been fighting words.
Opponents say that about 70 percent of food sold in the state, by dollar volume, would not be covered by the initiative, an exemption list that includes restaurant meals, meat and dairy products sold in supermarkets, and alcohol. Critics say the proposed label language is so vague that residents would ultimately have little new information to go on, and that food costs could rise as companies substitute more expensive non-genetically modified ingredients to avoid the labeling requirement.
“There’s something attractive about saying this is all about the right to know,” said Dana Bieber, a spokeswoman for the No on 522 Coalition, the main opposition group. “But that’s where 522 fails.”
Supporters say the exemptions and the language were written to be congruent with labeling laws for genetically modified food in other countries, as well as existing nutrition labeling rules set by the Food and Drug Administration. They also say that restaurant meals and alcohol have long been exempt from federal rules on nutritional content and that the measure was narrowly drawn to reduce the risk of legal challenge.
The real money issue, supporters say, is about the corporations fighting the ballot measure, until recently in secret.
This month, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, citing campaign disclosure laws, sued the Grocery Manufacturers Association and forced the group to divulge donations that had been given to the association then sent to No on 522 campaign, but not publicly released.
“The GMA illegally collected and spent more than $7 million while shielding the identity of its donors,” Mr. Ferguson’s office said in a news release.
The release of a donor list fueled questions about the corporate agenda behind opposition to the initiative, supporters of the measure assert. Voters now often bring up the money question, said Delana Jones, the campaign manager for Yes on 522. “And when they do, we’re ready to talk about it,” she said. “What are they trying to hide?”
Patterned after a similar proposal in California that was rejected last year, Initiative 522 was put on the ballot after supporters gathered about 350,000 signatures this year. The biggest contributors to the initiative campaign have been Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a California company, and political action committees representing the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit that opposes genetically modified foods, and the Organic Consumers Association, which also represents farmers.
Connecticut has a law, at least on paper, requiring products “produced with genetic engineering,” to be labeled. But the law, passed in June, will not take effect unless four other Northeastern states with a total population of more than 20 million, including at least one that shares a border with Connecticut, pass similar regulations.
Public opinion surveys suggest a very close contest in Washington. A poll in September by Elway Research based in Seattle found that 66 percent of voters supported the labeling measure. But as television ads attacking the measure multiplied and some major newspapers, including The Seattle Times, have urged rejection of the measure in editorials, support has eroded.
In the most recent Elway poll, released last week, support for Initiative 522 had dropped by 20 percentage points, to 46 percent, while opposition rose to 42 percent, from 21 percent, making the contest too close to call, with 12 percent undecided, said Stuart Elway, the poll’s director. The poll, conducted from Oct. 15 to 17, of 413 registered Washington voters, had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.
Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, is among those undecided voters, though he has said he thinks there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that genetically modified foods are a health concern.
Originally published: New York Times