WA fights over GMOs

Oct 18, 2013

The battle over labeling genetically modified organisms (GMOs) seems to be a perennial in the world of legislation; it crops up somewhere every election cycle.

Like alfalfa, the concept of mandatory labeling laws were planted, cut back, and continue to grow.

Washington State is currently experiencing the second cutting of seeds planted last year by California. The state is quickly approaching a Nov. 5 vote on Initiative 522 which would mandate the labeling of the presence of GMOs in some types of food.

The mandatory labeling would have to be “stated clearly and conspicuously on the front of the package” or bin in which the food is offered for sale. The labels would have to declare the product was “genetically engineered”—for raw agricultural products—or “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering” in the case of processed foods. Seeds and seedstock would also have to be labeled.

It is important to note that individual GMO ingredients in processed foods would not have to be listed as such.

As with last year’s fight in California over Proposition 37, much of the conflict about the bill circles around transparency and money. Proponents of the bill frame the issue in terms of “the right to know,” while opponents characterize it as a costly bill which will not achieve its goal; namely to inform consumers of the presence of GMO ingredients in their food. Neither side highlights the issue of GMO safety, which has largely been put to rest by the scientific community.

Opponents to the bill point to the long list of exemptions to the labeling requirement as an example of the bill not achieving what proponents claim. According to the bill’s Section 3, subsection 3 (a-i), the following food items would not need to be GMO labeled:

• Meat from animals not themselves genetically modified, regardless of whether the animal was fed feeds containing GMOs;

• Any “raw agricultural commodity” that has not knowingly or intentionally been grown using/as GMOs and accompanied by a sworn statement to that effect from the grower;

• Any otherwise covered processed food where the basis of the labeling requirement would be one or more processing aids rather than the actual ingredients of the food;

• Alcoholic beverages;

• Any processed food where the GMO ingredient makes up less than 0.9 percent of the product’s total weight (exemption applies until July 1, 2019);

• Any food item certified GMO-free by recognized third-party auditing groups dedicated to that purpose;

• Any food item certified as “organic” under federal regulations;

• Ready-to-eat items such as deli foods and foods served in restaurants;

• “Medical food” (no additional description provided).

“I-522 requires fruits, vegetables and grain-based products to be labeled, but exempts meat and dairy products from animals fed GE [genetically engineered] grains,” says the “No on 522” Coalition in its “Facts About I-522” page.

“It mandates special labels and signs for foods containing GE ingredients when they are sold in supermarkets, but it exempts restaurants from providing information about GE ingredients in their foods. Foods imported from foreign countries would be exempt if manufacturers simply claim they’re exempt. So I-522 would not even give consumers a reliable way of knowing which foods contain GE ingredients and which don’t.”

Ultimately, the Coalition calls the bill “arbitrary.” It also insinuates the bill’s irrelevance in its goal of informing consumers of GMO ingredients, pointing out that certification programs and the USDA organic program already require no GMO ingredients.

Proponents of the bill however stress the right of consumers to know the contents of the food they eat without much comment on the exempted items. Within its own “Frequently Asked Questions” section, the “Yes on 522” Committee offers first an indirect answer and then later an incomplete answer regarding exempted items.

On the point of whether or not meat would be labeled, “Yes on 522” Committee eventually repeated the bill’s statement that meat from genetically engineered animals would have to be labeled. It however failed to mention that there are no currently Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved genetically engineered food animals available to the public.

The genetically engineered AquAdvantage Salmon is currently under consideration for approval, but not yet available, according to FDA. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor