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Originally published November 6, 2013 at 8:32 PM | Page modified November 6, 2013 at 9:10 PM

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Food-labeling supporters say fight is moving to statehouses

Initiative 522’s defeat in Washington won’t stop the fight to require labeling of genetically engineered foods, proponents say, and even foes predict more success with legislators than voters.


Seattle Times science reporter

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The battle to label genetically engineered foods won’t be stalled by the defeat of Washington Initiative 522, but the arena is shifting to legislatures across the country, proponents said Wednesday.

More than 20 states are expected to consider legislation in 2014 to require labeling, and some of those bills are likely to pass, said Scott Faber, executive director of the national group Just Label It!

“Regardless of the outcome in Washington, the long-term trend is consumers demanding to know more about what’s in their food, how food was made and where food was made — and GE labeling is part and parcel of that,” he said.

The Yes on I -522 campaign had held out hope that new results from King County would change the outcome, but as of Wednesday the measure trailed 46 to 54 percent statewide.

The initiative would have made Washington the first state to require labels on genetically engineered produce, meat from genetically engineered animals and foods made with genetically engineered ingredients. A similar measure failed in California last year, and backers had hoped a win in Washington would spur other states to follow suit.

But as in California, the “Yes” campaign was heavily outspent. Opponents, including Monsanto, Coca-Cola, Nestle and other food companies and agribusinesses, raised a record-setting $22 million — compared with 8 million donated by labeling supporters.

“When you’re outspent 3-to-1 — or 5-to-1 as we were in California — you cannot win the media war,” said Rebecca Spector, West Coast director of the Center for Food Safety, and a member of the I-522 steering committee.

The playing field is likely to be more level in legislatures, she said.

Dr. Henry Miller, a proponent of genetic engineering and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank based at Stanford University, said back-to-back defeats will take some steam out of the anti-GE effort.

“They lost more lopsidedly in Washington than they did in California, and what that demonstrates is that the more voters learn, the better informed they are and the more likely they are to reject ... the anti-biotech activists.”

Fellow GE supporter Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project at George Mason University, said labeling proposals are more likely to succeed in legislatures than in statewide votes.

Rather than face a patchwork of different laws, companies might support a national labeling system like in the U.K, where GE ingredients are listed along with all others on the back of packaging. But anti-GE groups in the U.S. want a label on the front and don’t seem willing to compromise, Entine said.

Faber, however, said he hopes companies will weary of expensive battles and come to the table with consumer groups and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to work out a national approach.

In the meantime, Oregon is likely to be the next battleground. A group called GMO Free Oregon hopes to put a labeling measure on the ballot next November. Director Scott Bates expects the same type of ad war that played out in Washington, but said industry spending may be diluted if other states also put forth initiatives.

Bates and his group hope to learn from the loss in Washington and come up with more effective ways to make their case to the public and to counter criticism.

Campaigners in Washington emphasized a “right to know” argument. But the Oregon group may take other tacks as well, like pointing out that companies already label genetically engineered foods in more than 50 countries.

Sandi Doughton at: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com



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