Washington voters were on their way to rejecting a citizen initiative Tuesday that would have made the Evergreen State first to require “clear and conspicuous” labeling of genetically modified and engineered foods sold in grocery stores starting in 2015.
In an election watched carefully by the national food industry and its critics, early evening vote counts showed Initiative 522 was losing by 95,000 votes despite strong support in populous King County. With about 2 million voters expected to turn out in the vote-by-mail election, roughly half of ballots remained to be counted statewide.
“We think the numbers look strong,” No on 522 spokeswoman Dana Bieber said, all but declaring victory. “We ran a factual, credible and respectful campaign. With Washington voters it’s all about the facts … When they got the facts about how costly and misleading it was, they rightly got to the no vote.’’
But backers of the labeling campaign were refusing to give up at their election party at a Pioneer Square venue in downtown Seattle. “This race as we thought is too close to call,” Yes on 522 spokeswoman Elizabeth Larter insisted shortly after the first flood of votes was counted. “We’re optimistic about the vote to be tabulated over the next couple of days. Conservative voters vote first. There’s a lot of voters to come in from King County.’’
The campaign fight over I-522 was one of the most expensive in state history – with No on 522 raising $22 million almost entirely from food, agriculture and biotech interests located out of state. That paid for an avalanche of television, newspaper and online advertisements that warned the measure would be costly to consumers, misleading and confusing.
The ad tactics mirrored the strategy that sank a similar labeling effort in California one year ago.
Critics hammered away at what appeared to be inconsistencies in the labeling - with products such as restaurant meals and beverages exempt from the labeling mandate. In both cases early polling showed labeling measures passing but the tide turned as the ad barrages wore on.
The Yes on 522 campaign raised nearly $7.9 million, including large contributions from whole foods advocates like Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps of California, and its “right to know” message echoed last year’s pro-labeling campaign in California.
National polling has shown high support for the right-to-know idea. But critics of I-522 hammered away at what appeared to be inconsistencies in the labeling - with products such as restaurant meals and beverages exempt from the labeling mandate.
I-522 proposed mandatory labels on the front of food packages that say a product is made partially using genetic engineering or in the case of fresh foods and seeds that it is genetically engineered. Activists seeking labeling laws are pushing for action in about two-dozen other states, and the outcome in Washington was seen as a harbinger of how the fight might go elsewhere.
“We believe we will win. But if we don't, the movement will remain energized and focused. 24 other states have introduced labeling laws - this is not an issue that is going away,” said Katherine Paul of the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association, which contributed nearly $800,000 for the Yes on 522 side. Paul made her comments by email well before voting ended at 8 p.m.
The national Grocery Manufacturers Association was the single largest donor to the opposition, giving more than $11 million, and agribusiness firm Monsanto gave in excess of $5 million more. GMA was sued by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson for collecting its money without identifying its sources – an error remedied in part when GMA registered as a political committee and disclosed that Pepsico gave $2.35 million while Nestle USA contributed more than $1.5 million and The Cola-Cola Co. donated more than $1.5 million.
The GMA contributions were part of a national strategy to fight GMO labeling proposals on a state-by-state basis while also seeking a federal preemption of such local laws, according to association documents that came to light as a result of the lawsuit. GMA still faces legal proceedings to enforce a penalty over what Ferguson has suggested is the largest campaign finance concealment case in state history.