I-522 is misleading, costly food-labeling initiative

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 13, 2013 

As lifelong advocates for family farmers, we take seriously the information provided to consumers about the food our farmers grow and our families eat. That's why, after careful analysis, we are joining the broad coalition of family farmers, scientists, doctors, businesses and others who are opposed to Initiative 522 on Washington's November ballot.

I-522 proponents claim that the initiative is a simple measure about the labeling of genetically engineered foods. The truth is that I-522 is a poorly written, misleading initiative that won't even accomplish what its promoters claim. But it will increase costs for consumers, dip into taxpayers' pockets, and hurt our region's farmers and farming economy.

Promoters of I-522 claim that the initiative is about the "right to know" whether foods contain genetically engineered ingredients. But existing food labeling policies already provide consumers with information about which foods have genetically engineered ingredients and which do not. Consumers seeking genetically engineered-free foods can look for certified "USDA Organic" products or choose products that are voluntarily labeled "non-GMO" under a nationally approved standard. There are thousands of grocery products in every grocery store with such labels. Check out your local Haggen and see for yourself.

I-522 is so full of special exemptions and loopholes, consumers won't get the information they think they're getting.

That's because I-522 arbitrarily exempts about two-thirds of the foods Washingtonians eat from its labeling requirements - even when these foods contain or are produced with some type of genetically engineered product. For example, I-522 requires fruits, vegetables and grain-based products to be labeled, but exempts meat and dairy products like milk, meat, chicken and eggs - even when these food products come from animals fed genetically engineered grain. Fruit juice requires labels, but beer or wine with the same genetically engineered ingredients is exempt. I-522 also mandates special labels for foods sold in supermarkets, but it exempts restaurants from labeling the very same foods.

I-522 fails on its fundamental promise to voters. It would not give consumers a reliable way of knowing which foods contain genetically engineered ingredients and which don't. Thousands of food products that contain genetically engineered ingredients would be unlabeled, and many foods that would require labels under I-522 may not even contain the ingredients at all.

And I-522 comes with heavy costs for farmers, consumers and taxpayers. Family farmers, food producers, grocers and retailers would have to implement separate systems to grow, handle, process, transport and sell food and beverage products in Washington. Farmers would have to create extensive new recordkeeping systems to track all food products - whether or not they contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Special tracking, handling and labeling also would be required to separate foods intended for sale in Washington from foods that would be sold out of state. Even foods without any genetically engineered ingredients would have to be tracked and documented to verify that they would not require a special label under I-522.

These new requirements would add millions of dollars in costs for Washington farmers and food companies, and make Washington products uncompetitive with other states.

Ultimately, these costs will be passed on to consumers through higher food prices. In fact, an economic study found that measures like I-522 would increase food costs for families by hundreds of dollars per year. Indeed, I-522 would be a tax on consumers.

I-522 also would require state government to monitor thousands of food labels in thousands of grocery stores - another dip into the pockets of taxpayers.

Agricultural biotechnology, the science of genetic engineering, has been used for decades to produce varieties of corn, soybeans, canola and other plants that are resistant to insect pests but drought tolerant so crops can be grown with fewer pesticides and less water.

Genetically engineered crops undergo extensive testing well above conventional breeding and are subject to layers of approvals by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Major scientific and medical organizations throughout the world, including the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, have exhaustively studied the issue and concluded that foods made with the benefits of biotechnology are safe.

And the skeptics of all skeptics, the European Union-funded Food Safety Authority, finds genetically engineered products safe. So does Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog.

Don't be fooled by I-522's simple-sounding promises. The measure deserves to be defeated.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Henry Bierlink, a former Whatcom dairy farmer, received his Master's degree in Public Policy from WWU and has been executive director of Whatcom Farm Friends for 20 years. Charles Antholt received his Master's degree in agricultural economics from Cornell University in 1972. He has 33 years of international agricultural, natural resource, and rural development experience and currently teaches at Western Washington University.

For more information on the campaign against I-522, go online to votenoon522.com. Vote-by-mail ballots will be mailed Oct. 19 and the general election is Nov. 5.

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