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Published: Sunday, May 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Backers of food labeling see hope

OLYMPIA -- Food labeling activists, who lost a ballot brawl in California last year, are counting on a high-powered consulting team and the deep pockets of donors nationwide to pass their initiative in Washington this fall.
Supporters of Initiative 522 on the November ballot have already stockpiled $1.1 million, with more than half of it coming from major contributors to the failed attempt to require food labeling in the Golden State.
And they've hired strategist Zach Silk and the Seattle consulting firm Moxie Media to direct the Yes on I-522 campaign, the same duo that ran the successful effort to approve Referendum 74 and preserve Washington's gay marriage law in 2012.
Their job will be to convince voters to change state law to require labels on all food products that are genetically engineered or contain genetically engineered ingredients. No label would be needed on products grown or produced without genetically modified organisms.
What this means is, for example, that certain varieties of corn and wheat grown from scientifically created seed stock will need labels. And snack foods such as chips and soft drinks that contain artificial ingredients would need labels starting in July 2015.
Meanwhile, foes of the measure trail badly in fundraising and lag in organizing but are expected to wage a vigorous and well-funded fight.
The No on 522 campaign committee had raised a miniscule $1,144 as of Friday, according to reports filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission. Almost all of it was spent for a March confab where representatives of food, retail and agriculture organizations met for a strategy session.
Opponents have not hired a campaign manager or begun aggressively fundraising, though they say a prominent consulting firm capable of handling both chores could be on board this month.
"There will be an organized campaign, but I don't know where it is formally at this point," said Tom Davis, director of government relations for the Washington State Farm Bureau. "We take them serious."
Backers say the measure will give consumers more information on how the food they eat is grown or processed.
"What we know about our customers is they're telling us they want to know what's in their food," said Susan Livingston, marketing director for the Pacific Northwest region of Whole Foods Market, one of the most prominent supporters.
Opponents say the measure will drive up food prices, spur lawsuits and put Washington farmers and businesses at a competitive disadvantage with those operating in states without labeling requirements.
Putting labels on foods that are as safe as any made without genetically engineered ingredients will mislead consumers about a product's safety, Davis said.
"You're creating fear in the minds people over scientific findings that show the food is safe," he said.
The battle cries in Washington echo those heard in California during the debate on Proposition 37, which proposed nearly identical food labeling rules.
Voters rejected that measure by a margin of 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent in a campaign that saw opponents outspend supporters $45.6 million to $8.7 million.
Those pushing Initiative 522 said they anticipate big checks will come in against them from companies like Monsanto, which gave more than $8 million to defeat the California proposition.
That's why they've made raising money early a key goal. Thus far they've landed sizable donations from several of those who gave generously in the California battle.
Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, a Southern California-based company, contributed $350,000 to initiative supporters last month, according to PDC records. That's the single largest contribution thus far.
Joseph Mercola, the owner of an Illinois health supplements company, contributed $200,000, and the Organic Consumers Fund, a national network of individuals and groups opposed to genetically engineered foods, has given $180,000.
Collectively, those three pumped $3 million into the pro-Proposition 37 effort, according to a tally of campaign finance reports posted on Ballotpedia.
Backers of Initiative 522 said they expect to be outspent by the fall. But, they said, Washington offers them a more politically advantageous landscape than California.
It's smaller in size and population, which makes it easier and less expensive to spread a political message.
Voters, of late, are willing to set social policy, as evidenced by passing measures to privatize sales of hard liquor, limit tax increases and legalize marijuana and same-sex marriage.
Also, there are farmers, ranchers and retailers endorsing the measure even though many of them belong to statewide organizations fighting it, such as the Farm Bureau and Washington Retail Association.
Elizabeth Larter, communications director for the campaign, said a lesson they learned from California was the importance of organizing earlier in the election cycle.
She said they've been more cohesive and proactive than at this stage in California.
Also different is that the measure is getting strong support from two natural food store chains -- Whole Foods Market and PCC Natural Markets -- much earlier in the campaign than in California.
And Whole Foods is conducting its own education campaign in its stores and online, something it did not do in California.
"A lot of the industry was not involved as early as we would have liked to have been," Livingston said.
Davis of the state farm bureau is well aware of the ramp-up of food labeling activists but isn't nervous. He said it's only May.
"We're not feeling any sense of panic," he said. "We have truth on our side."
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » Crime, Law & JusticeFood

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