SEATTLE — The most expensive and most contentious item on the ballot year is Initiative 522, the measure to require labels on genetically engineered foods. Nearly $25 million has been spent for and against the effort, making it one of the most costly campaigns in state history.
If I-522 is approved, Washington would be the first state to implement a genetically engineered labeling program.
“It’s about having a label, so you have more information, so you can make the best choice for you when you buy your groceries,” said Elizabeth Larter, spokeswoman for the Yes on I-522 campaign.
The required label would actually be a sentence that would read: “Partially produced with genetic engineering.” And that would have to be on the front of the package — not on the side, not on the top, but on the front.
“Information is only useful if it’s accurate, and that’s where Initiative 522 fails consumers,” said Dana Bieber of the No on I-522 campaign. “It is incomplete, inconsistent and inaccurate. It provides misleading information to consumers.”
I-522 proponents say they don’t want this to be a debate about the safety of genetically engineered or modified foods, but clearly that’s a big undercurrent of this campaign.
“If GMOs are so great and are helping the world and helping farmers, then why aren’t they proud to have that on their label?” asked Larter. “Why is the grocery manufacturers association, based in Washington D.C., trying to keep us in the dark about our food?”
Bieber cites hundreds of studies she argues prove that GE foods are healthy and safe. “These are the foods that we have been eating for over 20 years,” she said. “Literally millions of people have eaten trillions of meals with GE ingredients and there’s not been one single health consequence to that.”
The main argument against I-522 is that it doesn’t apply to everything. Indeed, opponents say that 70 percent of food would be exempt. For example, labels wouldn’t be required on beer or wine. Here’s another: I-522 wouldn’t apply to a soda you buy at a fountain, but it would for a soda you buy in a can. How about a delivered pizza? No label on that. But a frozen pizza from a store, yes.
“We can’t confuse the right to know, with knowing the wrong information,” said Bieber.
But supporters argue that they are just following the U.S. government`s existing food laws, which typically require nutrition labels only on packaged items in a grocery store.
So what about costs? The sides are very far apart on that. Opponents argue I-522 will raise food prices for the average family of four by more than $400 a year; opponents say, no way, the costs will only be negligible.
“In the 64 other countries that already label, there’s been no evidence of price increases,” said Larter. “Why would adding just a couple of words to the front of the package cost consumers hundreds of dollars?”
Bieber argues that ignores a big reality of the business.
“It’s not really about relabeling, it’s about having to remake the products,” she said. “What our food producers here in the state of Washington would have to do, just for Washington, they would have to remake their foods with higher priced, non-ingredients in order to avoid placing a warning label on them,” she said.