By Phuong Lee Associated Press
In the weeks before the November election, the claims and counterclaims have been flying in the fight over whether genetically engineered foods should be labeled.
The campaigns on both sides of Initiative 522 have bombarded the airwaves in one of the most costly initiative battles in state history.
Supporters of I-522 say consumers have a right to know whether foods they buy contain genetically engineered ingredients and that many foods have labels. Opponents say it would cost farmers and food processors and that such a label implies the food is somehow less safe.
Voters should view the campaign rhetoric with some caveats.
One of the more contentious issues involves how much the measure would actually cost consumers and taxpayers.
THE CLAIM: “It’s simple, and it won’t cost you a dime,” a Pike Place Market fishmonger says in a Yes on 522 commercial.
THE CLAIM: “522 would increase food costs for Washington families by hundreds of dollars per year,” a narrator of a No on 522 commercial says, as a family pushes a cart down the grocery aisle.
THE FACTS: The state Office of Financial Management has estimated it would cost about $3.4 million over six years to implement I-522, for education, compliance and lab testing. So there will be some cost to the public.
Elizabeth Larter, a spokeswoman Yes on 522, said their ad was referring to grocery, not administrative costs.
While the ad claims the initiative won’t cost you a dime, the campaign is being literal in its assessment. Even the campaign’s own calculations show it would cost about 8 cents a year for every person who lives in the state. (They took the average annual administrative cost and divided it by the state population of 6.8 million to get the less-than-a-dime figure).
The pro-labeling camp cites a report, among others, by Emory University Law professor Joanna Shepherd-Bailey, who concluded consumers won’t see an increase in food prices from labeling. An advocacy group that favors GMO, or genetically modified organism, labels paid for the report.
Meanwhile, the opposition cites a report — which it paid for — noting it would cost a family of four more than $450 a year in higher grocery costs by 2019. The figure, however, assumes grocery manufacturers will switch to organic or non-GMO ingredients to avoid the GE label.
Two experts interviewed by The Associated Press said it would depend on how consumers or retailers respond.
Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University, said two extreme scenarios are presented. One — supported by proponents — assumes retailers will add a label that most consumers won’t notice, and the cost effects will be trivial, he said. The other scenario assumes retailers will avoid the label because of negative perceptions around GMOs.
“It’s hinging crucially on what the retailers are going to do in response. An honest person has to say, ‘We don’t know,’ ” Lusk said.
Guillaume Gruere, formerly a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, also said it will depend on how companies react. But he noted prices will go up if companies switch to non-GMOs, since a majority of corn, sugar beets and soybeans in the U.S. are genetically engineered.
In report commissioned by state lawmakers, however, the Washington State Academy of Sciences said mandatory labeling “is likely to affect trade and impose higher costs on firms producing and selling products in Washington. These costs are likely to be passed on to the consumer, resulting in higher food prices.”
“The costs are uncertain, but it’s certain that they will go up,” said Thomas Marsh, an agricultural economist at Washington State University who co-chaired the panel. But, he added, there’s not enough information to know the precise costs.
Still, Dana Bieber, a spokeswoman with No on 522, said the report “validated the fact that it will undoubtedly increase costs.”
Pet food included?
THE CLAIM: “It’s so badly written that pet food would be covered, but meat for human consumption would be exempt,” Dan Newhouse, a former state agriculture director, said in a No on 522 ad.
THE FACTS: Meat from animals that eat GMO feed would be exempt under I-522, but meat from genetically engineered animals would carry a label.
Proponents say this would ensure genetically altered salmon or other animals would be labeled if they are ever approved for human consumption. The Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to approve a genetically altered salmon.
Whether pet food would be covered is murkier, with both sides arguing they’re right; it may well be decided when state rules are written should the measure pass.
The pro-labeling camp notes that pet food isn’t mentioned in the actual initiative, and that its authors intended the measure to apply only to food for humans.
“It will be interpreted according to the intent of the voters,” said Knoll Lowney, an attorney for Yes on 522. When the state drafts rules, “no one is going to argue for labeling pet foods because that’s not the intent,” he added.
Rob Maguire, an attorney with No on 522, disagrees.
Pet food “is covered because the initiative says it applies to food,” he said. “It’s the ordinary dictionary definition of food. The initiative says it applies to any food offered for retail sale.
“The way it’s drafted now, pet food is included,” he said.