GMO labeling measure down big in Washington State

A Washington state ballot initiative to require labels on all foodstuffs containing genetically engineered ingredients appeared headed for defeat early Wednesday, with the measure trailing significantly after the first night of election returns.

But supporters of the state’s Initiative 522 were not ready to concede defeat and pointed to hundreds of thousands of uncounted ballots.

Opponents from the food and biotechnology industries claimed the latest in a series of important but expensive victories in states considering mandatory labels for products containing genetically modified organisms (GMO).

"We will continue to oppose individual state efforts to impose mandatory labeling of products made with GMO technology, as well as advocate for the safe and effective use of this important technology to increase the food supply while lowering cost,” Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) president Pamela G. Bailey said.

Initial returns show the measure trailing by 10 percentage points and roughly 95,000 votes, according to news reports.

The “Yes on 522” campaign said the outcome remained uncertain. The next round of returns was not expected until late Wednesday. 

“Due to Washington State’s vote-by-mail system, we don’t have a final tally of the votes tonight,” Yes on 522 campaign manager Delana Jones said in a statement released after the first round of were counted.

If successful, the measure would make Washington the first state to require labels on genetically engineered foods. Critics of GMO crops and food, including advocacy groups and organic farmers, warn that they could pose threats to public health and damage the environment. 

However, industry and biotechnology groups maintain that GMO products are perfectly safe. Mandatory labels, they argue, are unnecessary and could prejudice consumers against important technological advancements.

Opponents of the Washington measure outspent supporters by nearly 3 to 1, pouring almost $22 million into a campaign that portrayed the initiative as unnecessarily complicated and onerous. Similar opposition campaigns have helped sink GMO labeling efforts in other western states.

“Just like 27 million voters in California and Oregon, Washington voters saw how this burdensome and deceptive labeling scheme would have created more state bureaucracy, imposed new costs and burdens on local farmers and businesses, and increased food prices for Washington families,” Biotechnology Industry Organization president Jim Greenwood said in a statement.

Not wanting to continue a state-by-state battle against mandatory labeling laws, the GMA is currently preparing a proposed “federal solution” involving national labeling standards, Bailey said.