Nation eyes Washington’s vote on I-522

Staff writerOctober 19, 2013 

WASHINGTON — Running for president in 2007, Barack Obama vowed to push for labels on genetically modified food, saying, “Americans should know what they’re buying.”

But post-election, Obama didn’t follow up on his promise, showing a reluctance that now appears to be shared by many. The Food and Drug Administration has done nothing to advance the cause. A national labeling bill has languished in Congress. California voters rejected the idea last year.

Now the focus is on Washington state, which might break the national logjam with a vote Nov. 5 on Initiative 522, which would require labeling of genetically modified foods. If the initiative is approved, it would be the first of its kind in the nation.

The importance of the vote is clear: Out-of-state agribusiness opponents such as Monsanto have been pouring millions of dollars into the statewide fight.

“Official Washington is waiting to take its cue from the states,” said Scott Faber, the executive director of Just Label It, a national group that wants to label all foods that contain GMOs — genetically modified organisms. He’s also the senior vice president of government affairs at Environmental Working Group, a health research and advocacy group.

For labeling backers, winning in Washington state — which some call “the big domino” — is the first step in a national strategy. Under their plan, other states would quickly follow suit, upping the pressure on Congress and the Obama administration to pass a uniform standard as a way to avoid the confusion that would result from a patchwork of state laws.

“The last thing we want is some states labeling and others not,” Faber said. “The wisest and easiest course for the Obama administration would be to make good on the 2007 promise to require labeling. … We’re living in an era where people want to know more about their food than ever before. They want to know who made it, how it was made, where it was made.”

If the measure passes, Washington would be the first state to pass a mandatory GMO food-labeling law with no strings attached. Labeling bills for GMO foods were introduced in 26 states this year. So far, legislators have approved labeling bills in only two states — Connecticut and Maine — and their laws won’t take effect unless neighboring states also decide to require labeling.

Opponents have a strategy, too: If they can’t defeat the ballot measure in Washington state, they want Congress to pass a law that would pre-empt states’ ability to act on their own.

But first, they’re concentrating on Washington state, relying on economic and scientific arguments. On the economics front, they say passing the measure would add almost $500 a year to the grocery bill of an average family of four in the state, though labeling proponents have been quick to dispute that.

They also say there’s no scientific reason to add thousands of new food labels in grocery stores across the state, because 70 percent to 80 percent of the products they sell already contain genetically engineered ingredients that the federal government has deemed safe.

Mike LaPlant, the president of the Washington State Farm Bureau, which represents 42,000 farmers and ranchers, said passing the initiative would create an “unnecessary, badly written law” that would hurt farmers and food companies while making the state’s consumers the only ones in the nation who were forced to pay the extra costs.

Dana Bieber, a spokeswoman for the No on 522 Coalition, which is leading the opposition, said the labeling law would create “a regulatory and litigation” climate that would leave thousands of farmers in the state vulnerable to lawsuits.

“This is a Washington-only law. … It opens them up to litigation that no other farmer in the entire country would have to face,” she said.

Ninety-three percent of Americans want labels on food with GMOs, according to a New York Times poll released in July.

Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009 rhotakainen@mcclatchydc.com

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