WASHINGTON Running for president in 2007, Barack Obama vowed to push for labels on genetically modified food, saying, "Americans should know what they're buying."
But post-election, Obama didn't follow up on his promise, showing a reluctance that now appears to be shared by many. The Food and Drug Administration has done nothing to advance the cause. A national labeling bill has languished in Congress. California voters rejected the idea last year.
Now the focus is on Washington state, which might break the national logjam with a vote Nov. 5 on I-522, a ballot initiative that would require labeling of genetically modified foods. If the measure is approved, it would be the first of its kind in the nation. The importance of the vote is clear: Out-of-state agribusiness opponents such as Monsanto have been pouring millions of dollars into the statewide fight.
"Official Washington is waiting to take its cue from the states," said Scott Faber, the executive director of Just Label It, a national group that wants to label all foods that contain GMOs genetically modified organisms. He's also the senior vice president of government affairs at Environmental Working Group, a health research and advocacy group.
For labeling backers, winning in Washington state which some call "the big domino" is the first step in a national strategy. Under their plan, other states would quickly follow suit, upping the pressure on Congress and the Obama administration to pass a uniform standard as a way to avoid the confusion that would result from a patchwork of state laws.
"The last thing we want is some states labeling and others not," Faber said. "The wisest and easiest course for the Obama administration would be to make good on the 2007 promise to require labeling. We're living in an era where people want to know more about their food than ever before. They want to know who made it, how it was made, where it was made."
If the measure passes, Washington would be the first state to pass a mandatory GMO food-labeling law with no strings attached. Labeling bills for GMO foods were introduced in 26 states this year, including Alaska, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. So far, legislators have approved labeling bills in only two states Connecticut and Maine and their laws won't take effect unless neighboring states also decide to require labeling.
Opponents have a strategy, too: If they can't defeat the ballot measure in Washington state, they want Congress to pass a law that would pre-empt states' ability to act on their own.
But first, they're concentrating on Washington state, relying on economic and scientific arguments. On the economics front, they say passing the measure would add nearly $500 a year to the grocery bill of an average family of four in the state, though labeling proponents have been quick to dispute that.
They also say there's no scientific reason to add thousands of new food labels in thousands of grocery stores across the state, since 70 to 80 percent of the products they sell already contain genetically engineered ingredients that the federal government has deemed safe.
Mike LaPlant, the president of the Washington State Farm Bureau, which represents 42,000 farmers and ranchers, said passing the initiative would create an "unnecessary, badly written law" that would hurt farmers and food companies alike while making the state's consumers the only ones in the nation who were forced to pay the extra costs.
Dana Bieber, a spokeswoman for the No on 522 Coalition, which is leading the opposition, said the labeling law would create "a regulatory and litigation" climate that would leave thousands of farmers in the state vulnerable to lawsuits.
"This is a Washington-only law. It opens them up to litigation that no other farmer in the entire country would have to face," she said.
Monsanto, which helped lead the way last year in defeating the California initiative, donated $4.6 million last month to the No on 522 Coalition.
In a blog post on its website, Monsanto said it backed voluntary labeling but that a mandatory labeling program would threaten public confidence in GMO foods that have been tested for decades and found to be safe.
"We stand by the science," the company said.
Skeptics of the measure include the state's two largest newspapers, The Seattle Times and the McClatchy-owned Tacoma News Tribune, which have published editorials this month opposing I-522. The Seattle paper called the initiative "a clumsy, emotion-based campaign" and said labels would suggest to consumers that something is wrong with the food, even though they've been eating genetically altered products "for a long time without demonstrable problems."
Of the nine newspapers that have taken a stand on I-522 so far, all have opposed the measure, Bieber said.
"The news over the last few days has been one editorial after another urging a no vote," she said. "That's been the big story."
Nationally, pro-labeling groups have public opinion on their side.
Ninety-three percent of Americans now want labels on food with GMOs, according to a New York Times poll released in July. Three-quarters of those who responded expressed concern about GMOs in their food, with most worried about health effects. And 37 percent of those who were worried said they feared that the foods could cause cancer or allergies, even though scientific studies say there's no added risk.
Those poll numbers leave backers of labeling feeling optimistic.
"This is something that is inevitable, and the companies are seeing that," said Andrew Behar, the chief executive officer of As You Sow, a nonprofit shareholder advocacy organization that promotes environmental and social causes.
The money, though, has been coming down heavily on the side of the opposition. Led by Monsanto's contribution, opponents have raised more than $17 million to thwart the Washington initiative. Labeling backers have raised $5 million. On Wednesday, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson questioned the fundraising tactics of the opponents, accusing a food industry group of violating campaign finance laws for how it had collected and spent more than $7 million.
For companies, there may be a risk in winding up on the opposite side of the argument from their customers or shareholders. In a conference call with reporters last week, environmental groups urged large biotechnology companies not to spend additional money trying to kill I-522, warning that it might backfire with their shareholders.
"This money is not a good use of corporate funds," Behar said.
Lucia von Reusner, shareholder advocate for Green Century Capital Management, an investment advisory firm, said companies that got involved in highly controversial public policy issues risked alienating their consumer base and damaging their profits. Those companies "end up positioning themselves as opposing their consumers' right to know," she said.
Sixty-four countries require labeling of products that contain GMOs, including Australia, Brazil, China, Japan, South Africa, South Korea and the entire European Union, according to the Center for Food Safety, a group that backs labeling.
"More than half of the world consumers already have the right to know and to make choices for themselves and for their families," Faber said. "And all we're asking for is the right to make those same choices for ourselves and our families."
Rob Hotakainen covers Washington state from McClatchy's Washington, D.C., bureau. Reach him at email@example.com.