Food labeling initiative appears headed to defeat

Food labeling activists who lost a ballot brawl in California last year are not faring much better in Washington.

Voters on Tuesday were soundly rejecting Initiative 522, the measure requiring labels on processed and packaged food made with genetically engineered ingredients starting in 2015.

The initiative garnered only 45.2 percent statewide in initial returns and was losing in all but four counties — King, Jefferson, San Juan and Whatcom. In Snohomish County, it was getting turned down by a margin of 51.7 percent to 48.3 percent. Island County voters liked it even less with nearly 53 percent voting no.

Opponents all but claimed victory.

“The numbers look incredibly strong. We think the voters said no,” said Dana Bieber, spokeswoman for the No on 522 campaign.

But supporters said it’s too soon to throw in the towel because of the number of uncounted votes in populous King County where it is widely backed.

“It is really about King County,” said Elizabeth Larter, spokeswoman for the Yes on 522 committee. “Our number crunchers say it is too close to call.”

Initiative 522 would require labels reading “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering” be placed on the front of packaging of everyday products like snack foods, cereals and salad dressings.

Washington would be the first state in the nation to have such a mandate in force if it passed.

Backers argued the measure would give consumers more information on how the food they eat is grown or processed though the labels wouldn’t specify which ingredients are genetically modified.

Opponents countered that the measure would drive up food prices, spur lawsuits and put Washington farmers and businesses at a competitive disadvantage with those operating in states without labeling requirements.

This clash became Washington’s latest mega-money campaign on a statewide ballot measure. Opponents spent nearly $22 million — the most ever against an initiative — while supporters shelled out a little more than $7 million.

Nearly half of the opposition dollars came from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which collected it from the likes of Kellogg, Coca-Cola and other major food sellers. Agri-business giant Monsanto also tossed in several million dollars.

Backers of Initiative 522 expected to be outspent after watching the donnybrook that broke out in California on similar food-labeling rules. In California, opponents outspent supporters $46 million to $9 million.

But those in the Yes on 522 campaign figured Washington offered a more politically advantageous landscape than California. Its smaller size and population appeared to make it easier and less expensive to spread a political message.

Early on they seemed to be right.

An Elway Poll conducted in early September found 66 percent of voters would definitely or probably vote for it. But that poll occurred before opponents launched a torrent of television commercials and sent out a stream of mailers. And it didn’t help that the editorial boards of the state’s largest newspapers, including The Herald, came out against it.

When Stuart Elway released another poll in October, it showed only 46 percent of voters still backing the initiative.

“With Washington voters it is always about facts,” Bieber said. “We presented voters with facts that could not be disputed.”

Larter said they could not overcome the flood of advertising.

“The reality is we were outspent three-to-one,” Larter said. “We were trying to do everything we could to get the message out.”

Many of the state’s 39 counties will update their vote results Wednesday afternoon.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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