Looks Like a No-Go on GMO Labeling in Washington State

A massive influx of legally dubious corporate spending defeated yet another attempt at labeling GMOs.

November 6, 2013

Are those cornflakes made with GMO corn? Unfortunately, Washington voters—and the rest of the US—won't know any time soon.

A year-long effort to get voters in Washington state to enact a law that would require genetically modified foods to be labeled appears to have failed, based on early voting results from the state. Initiative 522, the "People’s Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act," is trailing in results, with 45 percent of voters voting in favor of labeling, and 54 percent opposed.


According to local news reports, the initiative was supported by two thirds of Washington voters in the weeks leading up to the election. But support waned as the election neared and the "No on 522" campaign—made up entirely of food, pesticide and GMO-seed manufacturers and their representatives—poured $33 million into anti-labeling advertisements, claiming that labeling would raise food costs (despite the fact that there's no evidence suggesting it would) and that people who want GMO-free foods can simply buy organic, an assumption that doesn't mesh with reality, says Elizabeth Larter, a representative for the Yes on 522 campaign. She says that organic foods can be out of financial reach for many people and aren't widely available in more rural areas of the state.

Supporters of GMO labeling have yet to concede, noting that Washington state's vote-by-mail elections have left a few hundred thousand ballots uncounted. (The state's total population is about 7 million.) But supporters were heavily outspent at a ratio of almost 4-to-1, managing to raise just over $9 million from natural foods companies and supporters of organic agriculture.

Not surprisingly, the corporate donors of the No on 522 campaign pushed the legal limits and were even sued by the state's attorney general for secrecy. Major food companies, including Pepsi, Nestle, Coca-Cola, Con Agra, General Mills, Kellogg's, Dean Foods and Campbell's Soup, among dozens of others, funneled money into the coffers of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which in turn funded advertisements against the initiative on their behalf while protecting their anonymity, a practice that is illegal, according to the state's campaign finance laws.

After being sued, the GMA disclosed its donors and then formed a political action committee (PAC) called Grocery Manufacturers Association Against I-522, which again, was operating in a legal gray area. In addition to funding its own anti-labeling efforts, the GMA's PAC contributed money to the No on 522 PAC, which used money from the GMA along with Monsanto, Dupont, Bayer and other chemical companies to fund additional anti-labeling efforts. Washington state law requires that, in order for one PAC to contribute to another, the contributing PAC must have at least 10 donors based in the state, each of which must contribute a minimum of $10. The GMA didn't list a single Washington-based donor among its 34 contributors.

At least 26 other states are debating GMO labeling laws via bills and other legislative efforts, but no other state appears poised to introduce ballot initiatives that people can actually vote on. The next best hope to get such labeling initiatives passed is the Northeast. Both Connecticut and Maine have passed GMO labeling laws that will go into effect when at least four other Northeastern states, with a combined population of 20 million people, enact similar laws. You can find out about efforts in your state via the Center for Food Safety.

Tags: GMOs