Washington state rejected on Tuesday an initiative to mandate the labeling of genetically-modified food items, bringing to an end an expensive campaign that pitted several out-of-state players against each other and drew criticism for failing to make clear the merits behind such a measure.
Initiative 522 was thrown out after 54.8 percent of the state’s voters opposed the labeling while 45.2 percent voted in favor, USA Today reported. The opposition raised $22 million, setting a record for fundraising by one side in the state, with the biggest donations coming from Washington, D.C.-based Grocery Manufacturers Association, and corporations that produce genetically-modified foods such as St. Louis, Mo.-based Monsanto Company (NYSE:MON), Johnston, Iowa-based DuPont Pioneer and Germany’s Bayer CropScience Ltd (FRA:BAYN).
A majority of donations supporting the measure also came from out-of-state entities such as Escondido, Calif.-based Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, an organic retailer and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety. The state’s residents donated about $550 against the measure while about 10,000 individuals, including residents of the state, donated funds ranging from as little as $2 to $20,000 in support of the initiative.
Currently, there is no federal or state law that requires labeling foods produced by using genetic engineering, and the initiative was based largely on the premise that botched genetic engineering could cause “unintended consequences.”
As many as 49 countries, including Japan, China, Russia, and the European Union, have laws requiring the labeling of genetically-modified foods, according to official text supporting the initiative, which also argued that U.S. food exports to several foreign markets had been hurt from concerns about genetic engineering and due to a lack of labeling of such foods.
A majority of genetically-engineered produce such as corn, canola, soybean and cotton, are largely used as ingredients in other food products including soups, sauces, mayonnaise, breakfast cereals, breads and snacks, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA.
Food manufacturers can voluntarily label whether foods of both plant- and animal-origin contain genetically-engineered ingredients based on guidelines issued by the FDA, according to information on the FDA’s website.
“However, if food from a GE animal is different from its non-engineered counterpart, for example if it has a different nutritional profile, in general, that change would be material information that would have to be indicated in the labeling,” according to the FDA.
The cultivation of genetically-modified herbicide-tolerant versions of several crops has jumped in the U.S. since 1996, and according to the latest statistics provided by the Department of Agriculture, 93 percent of soybean, 85 percent of corn, and 82 percent of cotton acreage in the U.S., as of 2013, is genetically modified.
In the food business, everything comes down to that moment when a shopper studies a label and decides whether to buy or move on. That’s why food producers have a big interest in Washington’s Initiative 522 on the ballot next month.
It would require foods with genetically engineered ingredients to have a label on the front of the package. Supporters say consumers have a right to know what’s in their food. But some companies worry the law could dramatically change how their products are seen.
Tubs of veggie dip go three-by-three through a labeling machine on the production floor at Litehouse Foods in Sandpoint, Idaho. They pop out the other side with “Country Ranch” stickers stamped on the lid.
None of the elements on that label are there by accident says Kathy Weisz, the head of graphic design for Litehouse.
“We’re trying to convey to the consumer what it might taste like,” she says. “Kind of the feel of that product.”
Litehouse markets to “foodie” shoppers. The side of the label says “made fresh.” The company uses raw ingredients, without preservatives — which is why the dressings are refrigerated.
Weisz says the label involves a constant dance between pictures of sliced tomatoes and sunflowers and the stuff on the label that has to be there legally — like nutrition content, and ingredients.
So, Weisz says it’s not that big of a deal to add one more thing to the label. “Label updates happen all the time.”
But the initiative before Washington voters would create a labeling rule that’s a little bit different from others. The label saying “genetically engineered” or “partially produced with genetic engineering” would have to go on the front of the package and it would be specific to one state.
“I mean we already do sell to Canada and Mexico and that’s difficult enough,” says Weisz. “But starting to treat a state like a country – I would think that most manufacturers are just going to do it across the board, rather than making certain labels going to certain states or whatever.”
Meaning that people in Idaho and Oregon would be seeing the same thing as consumers in Washington.
That worries Paul Kusche, the senior vice president of Litehouse. He says the supply of non-genetically engineered canola and soybean oil just isn’t large enough to overhaul the company’s entire product line. If Initiative 522 passes, consumers will see labels on most of Litehouse’s products.
“I don’t know what the reaction is,” Kusche says. “I really don’t.”
“Our right to know”
Research shows price, not labeling, is the most important factor for many shoppers. But companies like Litehouse cater to a particular crowd: the label readers — people who are willing to pay more for a product they perceive as healthier.
Andie Forstad, who lives outside of Spokane, helped gather signatures to put the labeling initiative on the ballot. To her, it’s about having information about her food – just like the calorie count on a box of cookies or whether her juice comes from concentrate.
“For transparency, for our right to know. So that we can make an informed decision,” says Forstad . “I know people still buy genetically engineered products, but for those who wish not to, we can make that choice.”
Forstad cut genetically engineered foods out of her diet eight years ago. But she says it’s hard. In fact, as we’re looking through her refrigerator, Forstad spies a bottle of raspberry syrup.
“Okay, so this one, most likely is genetically engineered,” she says. “And I just noticed it in our fridge, but it hasn’t been used! [I know] because it says sugar. Most sugars are sugar beet and sugar beet is genetically engineered. That shouldn’t be in our fridge.”
An unnecessary warning?
The problem, says Jim Cook, is that raspberry syrup may actually be identical to raspberry syrup considered GMO-free.
Cook is a retired plant pathologist from Washington State University. He’s thrown his support behind the effort to defeat the measure.
“Sugar. You take a bag of sugar, you look on the label, and it says zero protein. And of course it’s zero protein because it’s pure sugar.”
Cook says the original sugar beet plant was genetically engineered to produce a certain protein.
“But that’s the green plant,” he explains. “And that protein’s not in that sugar. Why would you put a label on sugar that says it’s genetically engineered? Because it’s not.”
Even if the initiative were written differently, Cook would still be concerned about what he considers a warning for food he says doesn’t need one.
“How do you process that information?” he says. “What do you think when you see ‘genetically engineered’ on the label? Are you going to buy it anyway?”
Supply and demand
Back at Litehouse Foods, Paul Kusche is already looking beyond the November election. Litehouse has started sourcing non-genetically engineered ingredients and has submitted 21 products for non-GMO certification.
Kusche says, the demand for foods that don’t come from genetically engineered sources is undeniable.
“Whether it happens tomorrow or whether it happens 10 years from now, we know it’s coming.”
And for now, at least he knows that if Washington does require Litehouse to label its products, they’ll have lots and lots of company on grocery store shelves.
LYNNWOOD — You can’t go far inside the Whole Foods Market in Lynnwood without knowing the company’s stance on Initiative 522, the food labeling measure on this November’s ballot.
There are banners hanging from the ceiling, brochures above the salad bar and a poster on an easel in the poultry section, all proclaiming, “We say Yes on 522.
The same message can be seen on every aisle and even under selected products of like-minded companies. It’s coming to checkout stands soon. It’s outside, too, where, parked a few strides from an entrance, is a forest green Chevy truck with Yes on 522 painted on the driver’s side door.
And the store’s roughly 155 team members — Whole Foods code for employees — carry literature in their aprons and are trained on the basics of the initiative should they be quizzed by a customer.
It’s not just here but in each of the company’s seven Washington stores, a reflection of how serious the international chain wants to win.
“We don’t dabble a lot in the political world,” said Leah Abell, marketing team leader for the store. “This is different because this is such a hot topic and we have been leading the way for organic labeling.
“Our customers are telling us we want to know what is in our food,” she said. “We want to give that to them.”
Whole Foods spent $250,000 trying to pass a similar measure in California last year. It has reached that mark in Washington already and expects to spend more, spokeswoman Susan Livingston said.
“We’re trying to engage people in every way we can,” she said, noting the company is funneling many resources through its Will Vote For Food effort.
If voters pass Initiative 522, many packaged and processed food products sold in retail stores will need labels revealing if the item was genetically engineered or contains genetically engineered ingredients starting in July of 2015.
There are a host of exemptions. For example, food sold in restaurants is exempt as are alcoholic beverages. And meat from animals that ate genetically engineered feed is also exempt.
Proponents contend requiring labels will give consumers needed information about the food they are eating. Opponents say it amounts to a costly new regulation that will manifest itself in higher prices.
Campaigns for and against the measure expect to spend millions of dollars in the next few weeks, much of it on the airwaves. Both sides launched their first television commercials this week.
Against that backdrop, individual farmers and businesses are trying to reach voters in a simpler and more direct way. Up and down the I-5 corridor and across the Cascades, businesses known for offering organic foods and products without genetically engineered ingredients are marketing a political message to customers.
Employees at PCC Natural Markets, which operates a store in Edmonds, wear Yes on 522 buttons. Information about the measure is available in the stores and has been sent to members of the nation’s largest consumer-owned natural food retail co-operative.
“This is an affirmation to our customers that we are doing what they have been asking us to do for 20 years,” said Trudy Bialic, director of public affairs.
So far no one’s complained.
“I have not received one letter from one shopper that they didn’t appreciate it,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the opposition expressed little concern about the strategy.
“Proponents can share the information as long as they are reporting it to the PDC (Public Disclosure Commission),” said Dana Bieber, spokeswoman for the No on 522 campaign.
Bieber wouldn’t say if they’ll have retailers opposed to the measure put up materials too.
“We’re committed to sharing the facts with voters,” she said.
She did point out that one Whole Foods infographic echoes the message of their campaign as it urges customers to look for products with the USDA organic label if they want to avoid GMOs.
“That’s what our campaign has been saying,” she said. “They’re reinforcing the message that the organic label is a better way to know if GE (genetically engineered) ingredients are in their food. It is better than 522.”
Such tactics are not novel in Washington.
Two years ago, Costco used its shopping warehouses to gather signatures for the liquor privatization initiative and then dole out materials backing the measure. Other grocery stores and many restaurateurs put up materials in their businesses.
It’s too soon to gauge the effect of such in-store campaigning on Initiative 522 because voters aren’t focused on the election yet.
“I think it can make a small difference,” said Seattle political strategist Christian Sinderman, who’s not involved in the campaign. “People have more opinions about food than they do about politicians so to reach people where they shop and where they eat will have more impact than a yard sign.”
Sinderman doesn’t think it will swing the outcome.
“Voters are smart enough to know that the businesses only engage in these things because they impact their bottom lines,” he said. “If they support that (company’s view) they won’t have a problem.”
When Washington voters decide Initiative 522 this fall, they will do more than determine whether to label food that contains genetically engineered ingredients.
They also will take sides in a national battle that has raged for two decades about the benefits and safety of manipulating the DNA of food — something many people view suspiciously but do not really understand.
“There’s a lot of uneasiness among consumers on the topic,” said Amy Sousa, managing consultant at the consumer research firm Hartman Group in Bellevue. “They don’t like the sound of it but have a difficult time articulating exactly why.”
GMO stands for genetically modified organism. Technically, any plant or animal that has been bred for particular characteristics is genetically modified. The difference with so-called GMOs is that their DNA is directly manipulated by inserting or modifying particular genes. Some call such targeted work “genetic engineering.”
The first genetically engineered food to appear on grocery shelves was a tomato that failed because consumers didn’t buy it. By contrast, the handful of genetically engineered crops that have been widely adopted by American agriculture — corn, sugar beets, soybeans, canola — are designed to appeal to growers by withstanding certain herbicides or creating their own internal pesticides.
Many of these genetically engineered seeds are owned by chemical companies such as Monsanto and Bayer — which has fueled some people’s mistrust.
GMO advocates, however, also include powerful non-business players, such as the Gates Foundation, that say the technology can be used to enhance nutrition and other qualities desired by consumers.
To Neal Carter, founder of a British Columbia company seeking regulatory approval for genetically engineered apples that don’t brown, GMOs conceived to appeal to consumers constitute a “second wave.”
“We’re going to see the next generation of biotechnology,” he said.
What he calls his “arctic” apples are a start. Carter grows them at test sites in Washington and New York states but will not disclose specific locations for fear anti-GMO activists could disrupt the work.
“It’s a huge investment, and we can’t afford to let folks know where we’re doing this because of that kind of risk,” he said. He wants to avoid the type of GMO crop sabotage that appears to have happened this summer in Oregon, where 6,500 genetically engineered sugar beets were uprooted.
Monsanto has said it also suspects sabotage in the discovery of genetically engineered wheat in Oregon during the spring, which prompted Japan to stop buying a popular Northwest wheat for two months. GMO wheat is not approved for commercial use, and it was found miles from where the company tested genetically engineered wheat almost a decade ago.
But the real war over GMOs is happening in the political arena.
Airing the arguments
The most recent skirmish took place last year in California, where the biotech industry and others spent $44 million to fight a labeling measure similar to I-522. Labeling supporters spent about $10 million.
The measure lost, but the idea of labeling GMOs appears to be gaining traction.
Maine and Connecticut recently passed labeling laws, although they are contingent upon other states participating. The grocery chain Trader Joe’s said in December that its private-label products contain no GMOs, and Whole Foods said earlier this year that within five years it will require suppliers to label products with genetically engineered ingredients.
The Hartman Group advises clients, which regularly include major food companies such as Kraft Foods, General Mills, ConAgra Foods and Kellogg’s, to discuss the matter openly.
“Trying to suppress labeling and skirt around the issue is not a sustainable approach, especially as more and more food retailers get on board with crafting their own position,” Sousa said.
People who oppose GMOs want labeling because they say genetically engineered crops have not been studied or regulated enough to know whether they are harmful.
They also argue it would be hard to return to non-engineered crops if damage is discovered later. And they point to dozens of other countries, including Japan and those of the European Union, that ban or label genetically engineered food.
“We already have the right to know as Americans what the sugar and fat content is, whether flavors are artificial or natural, whether fish is wild or farmed, what country our fruit comes from — and we have a right to know whether our food is genetically engineered,” said Trudy Bialic, director of public affairs for PCC Natural Markets, which helped write I-522 and led signature-gathering for the measure. It garnered about 100,000 more signatures than were required.
Other authors were Washington wheat farmer Tom Stahl and lawyers from the nonprofit Center for Food Safety and a Washington, D.C., law firm that helped write the California measure.
GMO proponents say the changes made to food using genetic-engineering techniques are not that different from changes that occur when plants and animals are bred conventionally.
They also point out that every independent science group to look into the issue, including the National Academy of Sciences, has found no evidence of ill health effects. And, they add, millions of people have eaten genetically engineered food for 20 years.
“It’s fine for people from rich, well-fed nations with productive farms to decline the use of GMOs. But they should not be allowed to impose their preferences on Africa,” Bill Gates said in a 2011 speech.
Processed-food manufacturers oppose labeling because labels could hurt sales, said Dave Zepponi, president of the Northwest Food Processors Association.
Removing all genetically engineered ingredients to avoid labeling would create enormous expenses, both in tracking down GMO-free ingredients and in segregating GMO and GMO-free ingredients, he said.
“Most of our companies are or attempt to be GMO free, but the risk of having a small amount of genetically engineered material in the product is too great. They would have to put a label on it, which is probably going to hurt their sales,” Zepponi said.
Although most food in the produce section is not genetically engineered, several major U.S. crops are — along with many processed foods.
More than 90 percent of soybeans, field corn and canola grown in the United States is genetically engineered. So is more than 80 percent of the sugar beets.
Those crops are turned into dozens of ingredients — cornstarch, soy lecithin, non-cane sugar — that are in processed foods.
But that is not how the GMO industry began.
The first genetically engineered food, which appeared in supermarkets in the early ’90s, was the Flavr Savr tomato. It was designed to last longer than regular tomatoes, but it flopped in the market.
“The tomato variety they worked with wasn’t that well suited for fresh use; it was more of a processing variety,” said Carter, the orchardist developing the non-browning apple. “It was remarkably ignorant or naive, and it goes to show how technology by itself isn’t the be all, end all.”
The market has not seen more products like the Flavr Savr, with traits that appeal directly to consumers, in part because it costs so much to develop GMOs.
“It’s very hard to get a payoff,” said Daniel Charles, author of the 2001 book “Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and The Future of Food.”
“If you come up with, say, a soybean with maybe healthier oil content, how are you going to make money on that? You have to first convince the consumer they want to pay more for that.”
Making a better apple
While the focus has been on growers, other GMOs are in the pipeline that have functions unrelated to herbicides and pesticides.
One is a genetically engineered salmon that grows to maturity more quickly. Another is rice with higher levels of vitamin A, known as “golden rice”; it has been a project of the Gates Foundation and others for years.
Then there are Carter’s non-browning “arctic” apples from British Columbia.
He said apple consumption has been in decline for years, and one reason restaurants and industrial kitchens don’t want to use them is that they brown.
So Carter, a former agricultural engineer, set up a research facility to create apples that do not brown. His company of seven employees is awaiting regulatory approval in Canada and the U.S. for arctic apples.
Like the Flavr Savr tomato, his genetically engineered apple turns off a gene rather than inserting one. But unlike the Flavr Savr, Carter said, his apples are derived from popular varieties — Granny Smith and Golden Delicious, to start.
Carter plans to label them as arctic apples, not specifically GMO. But information about their GMO origin will be available on the company’s website and elsewhere.
“We’re pretty confident by the time it hits stores, people will know exactly what it is,” he said.
Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @AllisonSeattle.
Seattle Times science reporter Sandi Doughton contributed to this report.
I’m wandering the aisles of Central Co-op, a natural foods market on Capitol Hill, checking its shelves for genetically engineered foods. Once you know what to look for, it turns out those ingredients are everywhere—even here, among the fake meats and packages covered in leafy art, smiling animals, and hand-lettering. They’re in the whole-grain bread, in the veggie burgers, in the peanut-free soy nut butter. You can’t always tell from friendly labels—”100% natural,” “multi-grain,” “fair trade.” But you may be able to tell soon.
Washington State will be voting in November on Initiative 522, which would require food made with genetically engineered ingredients (also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs) to be labeled as such at the retail level.
When I set out to research the initiative, I thought I’d end up with a clear and obvious answer about how I felt about it—and what the science says. I was wrong.
I was raised on organic produce, bulk-bin grains, and peanut butter you had to crank by hand; these food-labeling people are my people. But I still wanted to see hard science that backs up the squick factor of vegetables birthed in a petri dish. I wanted studies I could point to, something I could wave around and say, “Here! Here is incontrovertible proof that GMOs are evil! Their curse will last for generations and our grandkids will have four noses, and here, have some organic hummus.” But the smoking gun just isn’t there. Not that the anti-labeling side is all that convincing, either.
Genetically engineered food crops have been around since the 1990s, and they took off rapidly across the United States. Now certain American crops are almost universally GMO: more than 90 percent of soy and sugar beets, and 88 percent of corn, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Modifications are done at the genetic level (mainly by corporations that don’t exactly inspire trust, like Monsanto and Dow Chemical), often to make a crop resistant to a particular pest or herbicide. The FDA regularly approves new GMO plants—and soon, an animal: GMO salmon are on their way.
GMOs aren’t just in the processed food you grab in a stoned midnight run to Safeway. And while a 100 percent organic product can’t contain GMOs, lots of foods we think of as “natural” can and do.
For example, Gardenburger’s package is stamped with a cartoon cow and chicken embracing, and the message “There are no unimportant ingredients. If it’s in here, then it’s got a role to play.” That includes corn- and soy-based ingredients (and remember that nearly all US corn and soy is GMO), and when we e-mailed their parent company, the automated response we got back said that some of their products “do contain biotech ingredients.” In a form letter, the company explained: “It has become increasingly difficult to maintain non-biotech sourcing of the soy proteins.”
Franz Family Bakeries offers a “100% Natural, 100% Whole Grain” loaf of bread, touting its “premium Northwest grown & milled ingredients” and lack of high-fructose corn syrup. We asked Franz about GMOs in their bread, and they “do use cornmeal, soybean oil and canola oil in our products, and most of the corn, soybeans, and sources of canola oil are GMO, so most certainly these ingredients would be genetically modified.”
Even the crazily named I.M. Healthy Chunky SoyNut Butter, which announces on the label that it contains non-GMO soybeans, doesn’t guarantee that other ingredients in the same jar, such as corn-derived maltodextrin, aren’t genetically engineered. And the boxed gluten-free cake mix from Cherrybrook Kitchen contains some ingredients that “are not GMO-free,” the company says.
This isn’t to pick on these companies at all, or the groovy grocers that carry them; it’s just to point out how ubiquitous GMO ingredients are. And if I-522 passes this fall, we’ll be reminded wherever we shop how common they’ve become. Or, on the other hand, the measure could prompt more food producers to eradicate GMOs from their ingredients to avoid the GMO label altogether.
A vast majority of the American public supports labeling foods with GMO ingredients. A 2010 NPR/Thomson Reuters poll found that 93 percent of Americans were on board. Worldwide, more than 60 countries already label foods with GMO ingredients, including members of the European Union, China, Japan, and India.
Still, the opposition to labeling is fierce. In November, Proposition 37, which would’ve mandated labeling of GMO foods, lost on the California ballot after the opposition dumped more than $45 million into a campaign arguing that labeling GMOs would be deceptive, pointless, and expensive. The donor list looked like exactly what you’d expect: Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, BASF Plant Science, Kraft Foods Global, Nestlé USA, ConAgra Foods.
Here in Washington, there’s already opposition to I-522. The Seattle Times came out strongly against it, saying that “there is no reliable evidence crops containing genetically modified organisms… pose any risks.” The Washington Association of Wheat Growers is opposed as well, saying that mandatory labeling of GMO foods “that are indistinguishable from foods produced through traditional methods would mislead consumers by falsely implying differences where none exist.”
When it comes to the science, people on each side promise they can debunk anything the other side claims to prove. Biotech researcher Dr. Martina Newell-McGloughlin gave compelling testimony at an I-522 hearing in Olympia, saying, “There is practically no domesticated plant or animal today that has not been genetically engineered over the last 10,000 years,” since we’ve been selectively breeding, grafting, and even irradiating foods forever. Today’s precise genetic engineering has been found by all major science and health organizations to be “as safe or safer than” conventional methods, she said. Further, she argued, GMO foods are actually “more thoroughly tested than any in the history of food,” subjected to years of research before they make it to market.
But George Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety, who helped draft I-522, says, “We’re essentially taking the science from the industry for safety,” because the FDA doesn’t do its own pre-market testing, instead signing off on testing done by Monsanto and other companies developing the biotech foods. Dr. Michael Hansen testified in favor of I-522 in Olympia; he works for Consumers Union, the public policy arm of Consumer Reports, and he points to his organization’s long-standing position in favor of mandatory pre-market testing as opposed to the current system of “voluntary safety consultations,” as Consumers Union describes it. In place of that, Hansen says, they support labeling so consumers can at least make informed choices.
Another commonly heard argument is that labeling would burden manufacturers and grocery stores. But initiative spokeswoman Trudy Bialic, who works for PCC Natural Markets, which is running the I-522 campaign, says that’s bogus. GMO labeling would be “no different from any of the other things we keep track of already,” she says. “It did not cost us to add country of origin labeling, it did not make food unaffordable when we added nutrition panels, [and] it did not create a lot of extra costs when we started labeling trans fats.”
I-522 is also written differently than Prop 37. It specifies who’s required to do the labeling—the manufacturers—whereas Prop 37 didn’t. And Prop 37 was roundly criticized as being catnip for tort lawyers, who could claim damages from companies that didn’t properly label. In Washington, I-522 doesn’t allow awards for damages, just a reimbursement of attorney’s fees. Kimbrell says it was “deliberately drafted narrowly” to disincentivize costly lawsuits.
In the end, a lot of this comes down to how hard the food-industry opposition is willing to fight I-522. And weirdly, it turns out that buying some of the hippie products at the co-op may still be supporting the GMO industry. In California, big food companies poured money into the anti-labeling campaign, leaving labeling supporters furious. Angry green websites called for boycotts of GMO-free Silk soy milk (owned by Dean Foods), Kashi cereals (owned by Kellogg’s), Odwalla juice (owned by Coca-Cola), and tons more, since all those larger parent companies wrote checks to fight labeling. Here, as of yet, no counter-campaign to I-522 has filed with the state.