I-522 spurs local opinions about genetically modified food

October 16, 2013

By Peter Clark

November’s ballot initiative to label genetically modified food has caused a large split between local action and out-of-state funding.

Initiative 522 will ask voters whether the state should enforce labeling on genetically modified foodstuffs when sold in Washington.

“This measure would require most raw agricultural commodities, processed foods, and seeds and seed stocks, if produced using genetic engineering, as defined, to be labeled as genetically engineered when offered for retail sale,” the Nov. 5 ballot reads.

The question has stirred the state on both sides of the Cascades, and local residents and leaders have taken to the issue.

State Sen. Mark Mullet (D-5), an Issaquah resident who represents the Valley in Olympia, came out in favor of the initiative, and held an event at his Ben & Jerry’s franchise with ice cream brand co-founder Jerry Greenfield last month.

“I support it,” Mullet said. “This is just trying to make people make more informed decisions. And if enough states start labeling it, then maybe it will all catch on.”

He said his experience in the state Legislature and abroad has allowed him a perspective that places him confidently in favor of GMO labeling.

“I got both sides in Olympia,” he said. “Having lived in Europe for five years, I view this as a very soft thing. This is just letting customers make better choices.”

State Rep. Chad Magendanz (R-5), another Issaquah resident who represents the Valley in Olympia, joined the other side of the fence in opposing the measure. He is still waiting for research that justifies the concern.

“I absolutely support warning labels for foods that represent serious health risks for consumers, such as those containing alcohol, tobacco or common ingredients that can trigger severe or life-threatening allergies,” Magendanz said. “However, during our hearing on I-522 this session, I heard no independently verified research showing foods made from genetically modified organisms represents a serious health risk for anyone. In fact, the required label says nothing about what’s actually in the food and instead focuses only on how it was produced.”

He said he had additional worries that the labeling might prove harmful to a fragile economy.

“I also have serious concerns with how I-522 would be implemented at the state level,” he said. “Most labeling requirements are determined at the federal level so that farmers, processors and packaging facilities have just one set of rules to follow for the entire country.

“By adding burdensome packaging requirements that apply just for our state, we’ll drive production costs up, increase exposure to frivolous lawsuits and ultimately drive smaller brands out of our state, and that’s not good for the consumer in an economy where everyone is more price sensitive.”

Funding for I-522 opposition has raised eyebrows in Washington state, both because it has broken the record for most money collected against a voter initiative and because all but $350 of the $17 million was donated from out-of-state entities.

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