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Originally published October 8, 2013 at 7:11 PM | Page modified October 8, 2013 at 8:57 PM

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I-522: One big player sang a different tune in Britain

Which big campaign donor in this year’s battle over a ballot measure to require labels on genetically engineered food once declared its “full backing” of food labeling in Britain? The answer might surprise you.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Trivia time for Washington voters:

Which big campaign donor in this year’s battle over Initiative 522 — the ballot measure to require labels on genetically engineered food — once declared its “full backing” of food labeling in Britain?

Here’s a hint: In the late 1990s, the company advertised to consumers in the United Kingdom: “We believe you should be aware of all the facts before making a purchase.”

Thinking Whole Foods? Guess again.

The answer is Monsanto, one of the world’s largest producers of genetically engineered seeds and herbicides, and one of the top contributors to the No on 522 Committee now trying to defeat the Washington initiative.

In September, the St. Louis-based biochemical giant dropped a single contribution of $4.2 million into the No on 522 Committee’s campaign account, after spending $8.1 million last year to help defeat a similar ballot measure in California.

But for a time in the late 1990s, Monsanto touted its support for disclosing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in foods sold in the U.K., including in separate ads that featured a genetically engineered potato and a strawberry.

“Recently you may have noticed a label appearing on some of the food in your supermarket,” one advertisement said. “This is to inform you about the use of biotechnology in food.

“Monsanto fully supports UK food manufacturers and retailers in their introduction of these labels. We believe you should be aware of all the facts before making a purchase.”

Tom Helscher, Monsanto’s corporate spokesman, said in an email to The Seattle Times last week that such ads didn’t support compulsory labeling, but rather “the voluntary effort of retailers to provide information which they believed would be of interest to their customers.”

“Labeling was not mandatory in the UK at the time,” Helscher said. “Fast forward to 2013 — Monsanto continues to support the right of retailers and food companies to label their products voluntarily to meet the needs of their customers, but we strongly oppose Initiative 522.”

But, according to U.K. health officials, the European Union did, in fact, require some GMO labeling in 1998 and 1999 — when Helscher said Monsanto’s advertisements ran.

“The first EU controls on GM (genetically modified) foods came into force in 1997, as part of a wider framework for regulating ‘novel foods,’ ” Bradley Smythe, a spokesman for the UK’s Food Standards Agency, said in an email last week.

The initial law largely covered labeling only for foods introduced to Europe after May 1997, so the EU adopted a second law in 1998 “requiring all GM ingredients to be labeled,” with a few exceptions, Smythe added.

Among foods affected under the 1998 law were those containing genetically modified corn and soy, various media reported. At the time, Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” soybeans — a crop modified to resist the company’s top-selling weedkiller — were becoming an increasingly prevalent ingredient in processed foods.

Britain issued enforcement regulations for the 1998 law in March 1999, with violators facing prosecution and fines of up to 5,000 pounds, according to media reports.

GMO labeling was at the forefront of European politics for much of the mid- to late 1990s, in the fallout of Britain’s mad-cow epidemic. While genetically engineered crops weren’t linked to the disease, the mad-cow crisis heightened sensitivities about food safety.

A suspicious European public heavily criticized Monsanto for seeking to introduce new GMO crops and products to the continent and lobbying to proliferate their acceptance in the marketplace.

By 1998 — when its pro-labeling ads first appeared — Monsanto was pursuing applications to grow new GMO crops in Europe, while orchestrating a multimillion-dollar public-relations strategy in the U.K. to convince the public that its GMO crops were safe, according to media accounts.

In Washington state this year, Monsanto has joined with four other biochemical giants and the Washington, D.C.-based food-industry trade group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, to bankroll the No on 522 Committee’s opposition to the measure. Together, opponents have donated more than $17 million — an amount that has shattered the state fundraising record for a campaign opposing a statewide initiative.

If approved, I-522 would require “any food offered for retail sale in Washington,” with some exceptions, to disclose that it includes genetically engineered ingredients.

Labels would be placed on the front of packages or on store shelves when a product isn’t separately packaged. Raw foods would be labeled “genetically engineered,” while processed foods would be identified as “partially produced with genetic engineering,” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering.”

Opponents call I-522 a flawed measure that would misinform consumers by requiring inconsistent and inaccurate labeling on otherwise safe foods, as well as impose increased regulation and grocery costs.

Supporters say shoppers should have the right to know what’s in the food they eat, and that, in the absence of good studies showing the effects GMO foods may have on people’s health, the initiative at least provides consumers with more control over purchasing decisions.

The pro-labeling side’s largest contributor is Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a family-run business that markets unconventional soap products that first gained popularity during the hippie movement of the 1960s.

The California-based organic soap maker, which also heavily donated to that state’s failed GMO labeling proposition last year, has contributed about $2 million to Washington’s Yes on 522 Committee. Thousands of individuals also have given small donations to the Yes campaign, records show.

Lewis Kamb: lkamb@seattletimes.com or (206) 464-2932. Twitter: @lewiskamb

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