The Politics Blog

Advocacy group's new study says I-522's GMO labels won’t add to consumer food costs

OlympianOctober 7, 2013 

An initiative requiring labeling of genetically modified foods would not add costs  to Washington residents’ food bills, a new study by an Emory University professor claims. The report was released Monday by the Alliance for Natural Health USA, an advocacy group supportive of labels for genetically modified food products nationally.

At issue in the report is whether food labeling costs will be passed on to consumers if Washington voters approve Initiative 522 on Nov. 5. The Yes on 522 campaign funded by organic food interests is running television ads that claim it won’t cost a penny, while the No on 522 camp funded by the agribusiness and food industries is running ads claiming costs could be $490 per household each year.

The new report by economist Joanna Shepherd-Bailey at the Emory University law school found little or no costs. Although she says her analysis predicts no change in food costs, her report does cite “an improbable, worst case scenario” that includes nominal costs: $2.20 per person in the first year for label changes, 3 cents for litigation and 10 cents for state government’s administration of a labeling program. 

Those costs assume all costs are passed on to consumers by all producers for labeling and store placards, the professor says.

Shepherd-Bailey’s argument is that of the roughly 50 percent of food products that must be labeled, three quarters will be getting new labels during a routine repackaging process that most products undergo every few years. The result is no cost – or such a minimal one – that food companies would not want to spend money on the relatively more costly process of changing prices. 

The No on 522 campaign did not immediately offer comment on the report – which is similar to one Shepherd-Bailey prepared last year for the Proposition 37 fight over food labeling in California. But the No on 522 campaign has dismissed other reports cited by the Yes on 522 campaign as weak.

No on 522 frequently cites a report by the business-funded Washington Research Council that pegs the cost for a family of four at $360 a year initially and $490 a year after 2019. No on 522 also cites work by Northbridge Environmental, which prepared a report for opponents in both states’ ballot fights, to show similar effects.

A big part of the difference between the rival reports is that the WRC looked at the theorized cost coming from food producers that changed ingredients in order to avoid GE and GMO labels. That is based on a presumption consumers would reject products carrying a big "GMO" label and it’s a major theme of the No on 522 campaign.

Shepherd-Bailey did not look at that issue but when asked about it, she explained that the council’s report was based on Europe’s experience where GMO antipathy was high. She indicated that the U.S. experience could be much different and that WRC was “assuming every producer will sub ingredients in their products. … We didn’t study reformulation because we are not prepared to make the assumptions they did – that reformulation will occur.’’

Shepherd-Bailey’s report also calculated that a lawsuit provision in the initiative will have negligible cost. And she accepted pretty much at face value a state Office of Financial Management evaluation of taxpayer costs for I-522

OFM, which is the governor’s budget office, is required by law to evaluate tax payer costs for all ballot measures, and in this case it says administrative costs could total $3.37 million over the law’s first six years (fiscal years 2014-19).

The Alliance for Natural Health USA is an advocacy group that says it works for “sustainable health and freedom of choice in healthcare through good science and good law.’’  The alliance web site urges support for I-522 and it sponsored a teleconference with reporters on Monday that included ANH-USA executive director Gretchen DuBeau and Shepherd-Bailey.

DuBeau said Washington “is an important harbinger of what we can expect” nationally at a time 25 states have had bills introduced for labeling of genetically modified and engineered food products. 

DuBeau said her group favors transparency for consumers. But she declined to say what the report cost her group to prepare.  The No on 522 campaign paid $12,500 for each of the reports it cites.

The I-522 is on its way to becoming one of the most expensive ballot fights in state history and the $17.2 million raised by opponents is already the most collected by an opposition campaign. Our report last week on a judge's ruling in a lawsuit over that funding is here

Our previous report on the Yes on 522 shying away from talking about the science behind the GMO issue is here

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