I-522 was a tough choice

Yes, that was my car parked Tuesday night near the ballot drop box outside the Snohomish County Courthouse. I voted in the last possible hour. Picking candidates wasn’t hard, but I struggled with Initiative 522, which sought to label genetically modified foods.

Washington voters said no to the labeling requirement, defeated in our county 51.1 percent to 48.8 percent.

I ended up voting with the winning side. It didn’t feel great being aligned with Monsanto’s multimillion-dollar push against a group that worked to inform us about what we eat.

Yet I had lots of concerns about 522 after reading articles and editorials about it. I even watched “Washington’s Food Fight,” a documentary, plus an hour-long debate on TVW, which airs public policy programming in our state.

Initiative 522 wouldn’t have fully informed us. Many foods would have been exempt from labels. I also worried about food prices, especially for families least able to afford any increase. Mostly, I was concerned about Washington farmers competing with growers elsewhere.

I will disclose that I’m a child of a wheat-growing family, and do receive some income from farming in Eastern Washington.

So I didn’t support Initiative 522. That said, I think the awareness of genetically engineered foods raised by the campaign could turn out to be a good thing for consumer choice.

Voluntary “No GMO” labeling may increasingly become a selling point. I’d likely pick a “No GMO” labeled product over a comparable one without it. How many shoppers, newly informed by interest in 522, would now pay a little more to know that what they’re eating hasn’t been genetically altered?

I pay more for milk that, according to the labels, comes from cows not treated with bovine growth hormone. That’s my choice, not a requirement.

Let’s save heavy-duty legislation for foods proven to be real dangers. I applaud the Food and Drug Administration’s proposal Thursday to squelch the use of partially hydrogenated oils, the source of trans fats. Dr. Margaret Hamburg, FDA commissioner, said new rules could prevent 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year.

In our state, an election centered around groceries has surely made many of us more deliberate food shoppers.

Surprisingly, two food industry giants have stepped up to say they don’t plan to use one genetically altered product, the Arctic Apple. That’s the first genetically engineered apple in line for approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

What’s different about an Arctic Apple is what its developer, the biotechnology company Okanagan Specialty Fruits, calls “gene silencing.” That keeps the apple from turning brown when cut. A little lemon juice on a sliced apple will do that naturally.

Both McDonald’s and Nestle, maker of Gerber baby foods, wrote recent letters to the environmental group Friends of the Earth addressing concerns about genetically modified foods. Although the Oct. 31 letter from Nestle says the company uses “some ingredients derived from GM crops,” the company’s head of corporate affairs wrote “We do not use Arctic Apples, nor do we have plans to use Arctic Apples in the future.”

The Nov. 1 letter from McDonald’s USA public affairs senior director Jill Scandridge also says the fast-food chain has no “current plans to source the Arctic Apple variety.”

These huge companies know their customers. More than ever, parents are at least trying to feed their children healthful, natural foods.

Some people may love the prospect of apples that don’t turn brown, a miracle that Okanagan Specialty Fruits explains on its website as “a modern marriage of nature and science.” But it looks like McDonald’s and Nestle see avoiding the genetically altered fruit as a selling point, too.

If food companies choose voluntary marketing or labeling — and they well may — we get another chance to vote, with our dollars.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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