If you believe the processed food industry and the state’s major farm groups, a controversial Washington initiative requiring special labels on genetically engineered foods would be “scary” and serve as a warning — like “skull and crossbones” — for consumers.
If you believe the other side, backed by organic food and consumer groups, the label would just give information. Labeling advocates say consumers have the right to know how food is made and that a label is something shoppers want when evaluating
what they are buying and eating.
As the Initiative 522 campaigns near the Nov. 5 election, they agree on little about I-522’s requirement that packaged foods carry labels if the products contain genetically modified ingredients or are made using genetic engineering.
Both sides are running ads touting their claims in what is shaping up as the one of the most expensive initiative campaigns in state history — with more than $21.4 million collected by the No on 522 committee and more than $6 million by Yes on 522.
No on 522’s total includes $3.78 million received Thursday and Friday from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which has contributed more than $11 million against mandatory labeling.
Even the size, shape and tone of a simple label are in dispute.
“What 522 requires is really a warning label on the front. That’s meant to demonize and stigmatize foods,” contended Dana Bieber, spokeswoman for the food-industry and agribusiness-backed No on 522 campaign, who says a label could as easily have gone on the back of a package. “This is the first step to doing so. … The proponents are the ones who said a warning label has the effect of a skull and crossbones.”
Opponents cite an April 2012 column written by Joseph Mercola, a donor to genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling campaigns in California and Washington who argued that many companies would omit genetically engineered ingredients “especially if the new label would be the equivalent of a skull and crossbones.”
But supporters say such fears are overblown. Trudy Bialic, a co-chair of the Yes on 522 campaign and a director of public affairs for PCC Natural Markets in Seattle, said labeling is a matter of consumer choice and letting shoppers know in case the presence of GE or GMOs matter to them.
To make her point, Bialic passed around a mock package of “Corn Crunches” cereal at a recent newspaper editorial board. On the lower left edge of the box it carried the words: “partially produced with genetic engineering.” The letters were the same size and typeface as the information about the product’s weight.
“I don’t think it is a scary label at all,” Bialic said. “It’s the same thing as country of origin (labeling), which has to be on the front of fish (packages) saying whether it’s farmed or wild, and from what country.”
What the two sides do agree on is that the state Department of Health will hold rule-making hearings to decide the size and shape of the labels. The initiative says the labels would go on products starting July 1, 2015 — making Washington potentially the first U.S. state with mandatory labeling that 64 other countries already have.
“I’m sure that when the rules are being written it’s going to be a very vigorous, spirited process, and I hope it will be,” Bialic said. “I hope manufacturers do get involved.”
All that I-522 says on the subject is that the label must be “clear and conspicuous,” on the front of the packages and that it has certain wording. It says nothing about type size, font or color of the label.
According to language in I-522, genetically engineered raw products must have the words “genetically engineered” on a package label. For fresh products not separately packaged, the information must be on the store shelf or bin where the product is displayed for sale.
For processed foods such as breakfast cereal, labels must say either “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering.” Seed and seed stock would need to say on the container, sales receipt or other documentation that the product is “genetically engineered” or “produced with genetic engineering,” according to terms of the ballot measure.
In European Union countries, genetically modified ingredients are identified on a food package, with a notation after each ingredient that contains or originates from a genetically modified source, according to a food and drink industry guide to labeling.
Elizabeth Larter of the Yes on 522 campaign said the EU’s labeling began in 1997, well before GE products were widely available. She said the Washington initiative puts the label on the front of packages because federal law does not allow a state to make changes to the standardized nutrition and ingredient panels.
No on 522 argues that if there was no intent to scare consumers, the information could have been put somewhere else on the back of packages.
But Larter noted that the Grocery Manufacturers Association has developed an initiative to put nutritional information on the front of food packages in response to a challenge by first lady Michelle Obama in 2010. The voluntary labeling could include calories, saturated fat, sugar and sodium.
What I-522’s label would mean to consumers has been the focus of ads from both sides.
Bieber from No on 522 says cheeses would be exempt even if genetically altered enzymes were used to make them. Yet some products that don’t contain genetically modified or engineered elements would be labeled. For instance, products containing sugar from genetically modified sugar beets would be labeled — even though refining removes any proteins containing genetically engineered material from the final product, Bieber said.
Heather Hansen, a No on 522 campaign staffer and legislative lobbyist with a long farming background, says this creates situations that could cause consumers to shun a product that doesn’t contain GE material. One product of concern is frozen berries, which can have sugar applied during processing and would have to carry a label, she said.
A consumer going to the frozen foods case to buy strawberries for shortcake is likely to pause, Hansen said.
“It doesn’t tell you there is no GE content,” she said. “And you’re looking at that and most consumers are, ‘Hmmm, I’m not sure what that means, but I’m probably going to go buy something else instead.’ ”
Bialic disputes that claim.
“Some people don’t want to buy products from certain countries, or they don’t want to buy farmed fish. But both products stay on the market and still sell,” Bialic said. “It’s a simple information label. It doesn’t say ‘warning’ anywhere.”
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688