I-522: Clarity for consumers, or just a costly burden?

Tristan Klesick and Andy Werkhoven are two men whose lives are inextricably linked to the soil of Snohomish County and what they can safely produce from it.

They are farmers who embrace stewardship of their land as a way of life to be sustained for future generations of their families.

Yet these two men hold completely different views on the merits of a food-labeling initiative that’s become this year’s biggest ballot brawl.

Klesick, owner of the all-organic Klesick Family Farms in Stanwood, is a hearty supporter of Initiative 522 as a means of giving Washingtonians information on what’s in the food they eat.

Klesick’s customers won’t see labels on his food because he doesn’t grow or sell genetically modified products that would have to be labeled under the initiative. But they will see labels on many products in their local grocery stores, which may help them make decisions about what they buy.

“The only thing you have control over is what you put in your mouth,” Klesick said. “To me it’s not an issue of whether it will cost me more money. It’s about being truthful. I think the consumer has the right to know what’s going on.”

Werkhoven, co-owner of Werkhoven Dairy in Monroe, considers the initiative bad policy wrapped in good intentions.

“As a farmer, I feel a moral and social responsibility to bring good, safe food to the table,” he said. “When it comes to labels, they don’t tell the whole story. They tell the fraction of the story the label’s supporters want.”

He doesn’t think the measure would affect the dairy operation — milk is exempt under the initiative — but it could hurt his farmer friends and put a dent in his own wallet.

“Whenever you add layers of bureaucracy or regulations, it comes with a cost, and ultimately somebody is going to be paying for it,” he said. “I believe my food bill will go up.”

What it would do

If voters approve Initiative 522 on Nov. 5, labels will be required on processed and packaged foods made with genetically engineered ingredients starting July 1, 2015.

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

The initiative takes aim primarily at products sold in markets and grocery stores. It also applies to fruits and vegetables, as well as seeds and seed stocks.

It specifies that labels reading “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering” be put on the front of packaging. The same requirement applies to packets of seeds.

With fruits or vegetables, a label can be put on a bin or a shelf depending on how they are stocked.

What this would mean, say initiative supporters, is that one could expect labels on snack foods, sodas and cereals as well as salad dressings, canned soup and canola oil.

That’s because these days, the vast percentage of sugar beets, soybeans, corn and canola used in such products is enhanced in some manner through the manipulation of the plant’s DNA. Labels are intended to inform consumers that at least one ingredient has undergone such genetic engineering, though it won’t reveal which ones.

Initiative 522 doesn’t cover everything we eat. It exempts alcohol, food served in restaurants and “medical food.” Milk, eggs and meat are excluded, too, even if the dairy cows, beef cows and chickens are fed with feed grown from genetically engineered seed.

Under the measure, the state Department of Health will craft rules for implementing the law. Failure to comply with the law could result in fines of up to $1,000 a day.

Points of contention

Initiative 522 is on the ballot because 350,000 people signed petitions to put it there and it’s long seemed like a very popular measure. 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 started airing television ads and sending out mailers, and the editorial boards of the state’s largest newspapers, including The Herald, came out against it.

With voting under way, the focus of the fight is centered on two questions: Is the usefulness of labels undermined by the exemptions, and will the cumulative effects of the law drive up costs in a noticeable way.

Supporters argue consumers have a right to know what’s in the food they buy in stores and it won’t cost the companies huge sums of money to tell them.

“People just want more information about their food,” said Elizabeth Larter, spokeswoman for the Yes on 522 campaign.

She estimated 60 percent to 80 percent of products in stores might end up with a label under the law.

As far as exemptions, the ones on liquor, restaurant food and cheese conform to federal rules that don’t allow those to be labeled.

The initiative’s exemptions on meat, fish and dairy products make sense because the animals themselves are not genetically engineered, she said. If the federal government ever approves genetically engineered cows or chickens, then the beef, milk or eggs produced from them would need a label, she said. Same with fish, she said.

Dana Bieber, spokeswoman for the No on 522 campaign, said all the exceptions will leave consumers confused. Labels won’t make them better informed because they won’t reveal what it is in the product that triggered the need for a label.

“Your right to know will start and stop as you walk around the grocery store,” she said.

Opponents strenuously argue that Initiative 522 will drive up the price of many food items. Companies will be forced to spend money to create special packaging to comply and will recoup those expenses through higher prices, Bieber said.

A Washington Research Council study paid for by opponents estimated a family of four could shell out anywhere from $200 to $520 more a year — which works out to between 50 cents and $1.50 a day.

Then there’s the tab for the Department of Health. The Office of Financial Management — which is the budget office for Gov. Jay Inslee — predicts the state will spend $396,000 to set up the program in the next two years and roughly $750,000 a year to operate it.

“They say it won’t cost a dime. That’s ridiculous to say. The cost of food most definitely will go up,” Bieber said.

Larter said in 64 other countries with GE labeling laws, the price of their groceries did not go up. And in the United States, when the federal government started requiring labels with nutritional information, it did not cause a spike in prices, she said.

“How is that not going to cost anything and these five words will?” she said.

What about safety?

Are foods made with genetically engineered ingredients safe?

Leaders of the Yes on 522 campaign say that question isn’t part of this debate.

“We are not saying it is safer or not safer. We are not saying it is better or not better,” Larter said.

But for Tristan Klesick, and many people like him, it is part of why he is behind the measure. He said the long-term health of Americans is threatened by the proliferation of genetically modified organisms in food.

“If it passes, I think it will force America as a country to face this on a national level,” he said. “I think this food is part of our problem.”

Werkhoven is of the opposite mindset and credits the availability of GMO products with curtailing hunger in this country and around the world.

“I am personally, absolutely comfortable,” he said. “I would feed my children genetically modified products in a heartbeat.”

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

Funding fight

Millions of dollars are pouring in from out-of-state interests who view this battle as a crucible in the fight on food labeling in the U.S. Nearly $23 million has been raised by the opposing camps. The biggest checks coming in are from companies that faced off in California last year when voters rejected a nearly identical food-labeling initiative. Here are the totals and top contributors entering the weekend based on reports filed with the Public Disclosure Commission.

Yes on 522

Total raised: $6,069,8827

Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps: $1,815,635

Organic Consumer Fund: $380,000

Center for Food Safety Action Fund: $350,000

Mercola.com Health Resources: $250,000

Presence Marketing Inc.: $250,000

Nature’s Path: $168,700

No on 522

Total raised: $17,174,220

Grocery Manufacturers Association: $7,222,500

Monsanto: $4,834,484

Dupont Pioneer: $3,420,159

Bayer CropScience: $591,654

Dow AgroSciences LLC: $591,654

BASF Plant Science: $500,000

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