Q&A — Facts about I-522
Sound Consumer | October 2013
by Trudy Bialic
The opposition campaign to create doubt about the routine simplicity of labeling genetically engineered foods is well underway. Here are some points to understand before ballots arrive in voters' mailboxes mid-month.
Commonly asked questions
» Why do we need labels on genetically engineered foods when we have organic?
Labeling would give everyone in Washington the right to know if their food is genetically engineered (GE) — regardless of where they live, what grocery store they shop, or what they can afford to buy.
Everyone should have the right to know and the freedom to choose what they want to buy and eat — not just urban PCC shoppers with access to organic and non-GE foods, but also farmworkers, single mothers on the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC), and seniors on limited incomes. The WIC program prohibits organic baby formula and baby foods and most shoppers can't afford to buy organic as much as they'd like. Labeling is a social justice issue, ensuring equal access to information.
Labeling GE foods would give everyone in Washington equal access to more information.
» Why are there some exemptions under I-522?
I-522 is designed to be compatible with current labeling laws and prevailing global standards. They commonly exempt restaurant and medical foods, alcohol and livestock feed. I-522 just adds one new piece of information to our existing labeling framework.
Think about it: restaurants and pizza from a pizzeria already are exempt from labeling. The same is true for alcohol and prescribed medical foods. I-522 won't change that.
Livestock feed is also already exempt from common labeling laws. For instance, feed is exempt from labeling artificial flavors. Animal feed also is exempt under prevailing laws worldwide to label GE foods.
» Will labeling raise food prices?
No, labeling is a routine part of the food industry. Companies tinker with their labels all the time and change them every year or so, without raising prices.
There's no evidence labeling raised food prices in any of 64 countries with laws to label GE foods.
The EU's former Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, David Byrne, said "When the current [GE] labeling regime ... was introduced in 1997, it did not result in increased costs, despite the horrifying (double-digit) prediction of some interests."
An Emory University economist also analyzed a similar labeling initiative last year in California and found it wouldn’t impact food prices.
» Will I-522 force the state to monitor labels at a cost to taxpayers?
No, I-522 does not require the state to conduct any monitoring or enforcement. The state may choose to do so when writing rules, but I-522 does not require it.
» Who is opposed to labeling?
At press time, just six out-of-state corporations were listed as funding the opposition campaign: Monsanto ($4.74 million), DuPont ($3.37 million), Grocery Manufacturers of America ($2.22 million), Bayer Cropscience ($591,654), Dow Chemical ($529,531) and BASF ($500,000).
At press time, not one individual was listed as a donor on the Public Disclosure Commission report at www.pdc.wa.gov. Click "Search the database," "Committees," "Initiative," then "No on 522." At the same website, you can see all the donors to Yes on 522.
So far, the average donation to the No side is $2 million.
The average donation to Yes on 522 is $25, from more than 7,000 donors, most in-state.
» Why is it important to pass I-522 and not wait for federal labeling?
In America, states often must pave the way for national legislation. Three other states already passed laws to label genetically engineered foods, and Washington is important because it exports food to GE-sensitive markets that require labeling including Japan, South Korea, Australia, India and China.
Connecticut and Maine passed labeling laws in 2013. (Maine's bill is not yet signed but the governor says he will.) Each requires at least three more states to pass similar measures to trigger implementation.
Alaska's labeling law, passed in 2005, requires labels only for genetically engineered fish and fish products. Alaska's House and Senate passed it unanimously citing labeling as a way to protect the state's commercial fishing industry.
In fact, many families and commercial ventures that fish Alaskan waters are based in Washington state. I-522 is broadly supported by Washington's commercial fishing and maritime businesses, organizations, unions and families.
» Will I-522 cause lawsuits against farmers or grocers?
No. As the Seattle Times states, a party must have "standing" to sue and state law already requires that to have standing, suing parties must show they were harmed.
If a complaint is found to have standing, the court could award a winning plaintiff costs and attorney's fees incurred in investigating and prosecuting a lawsuit. But there is no provision for damages.
» Don't all the major health organizations say GE foods are safe?
No, but I-522 is not about deciding if these foods are good or bad, right or wrong. I-522 is about labeling, to let people decide for themselves what to buy and eat.
Many labels have nothing to do with health or safety — including country of origin, whether flavors and colors are natural or artificial, and if fish is wild or farm-raised. They simply give people more information when shopping in grocery stores.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, never has said GE foods are safe. Market approval is based on research by industry alone. (See FDA letters »)
A National Academy of Sciences report states that products of genetic engineering "carry the potential for introducing unintended compositional changes that may have adverse effects on human health."
The American Academy of Environmental Medicine has called for a moratorium on GE foods, citing several animal studies. Its position paper says "there is more than a casual association between [GE] foods and adverse health effects. There is causation ..."
In fact, the United Nations/World Health Organization food safety standards group and the American Medical Association (AMA) have called for mandatory pre-market safety testing of genetically engineered foods — a standard the U.S. fails to meet. The AMA passed a resolution last year calling for mandatory safety assessments, which creates an inconsistency with its older policy saying there's no reason to label.
Many national public health organizations support labeling, including the American Public Health Association, American Nurses Association, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Breast Cancer Action, Allergy Kids Foundation, Autism One and many others.
» Do we need genetic engineering to feed the world?
A recently released, peer-reviewed study published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability found that conventional plant breeding — not genetic engineering — is responsible for any yield increases in U.S. crops.
A 2009 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists also determined GE crops fail to produce higher yields.
Even China has approved only one GE crop: cotton. China doesn't allow GE rice, soy, corn or other GE crops.
Despite industry hype, there is not one genetically engineered seed that increases yield, provides superior nutrition or flavor, or needs less water or fewer herbicides.
Essentially all GE crops are designed to withstand higher loads of herbicides or to produce their own pesticide. Virtually all are engineered with foreign viral or bacterial genes.
» Why isn't Golden Rice approved by any country?
The hype over genetically engineered Golden Rice is deceitful. It's not approved by any country, despite hundreds of millions of dollars and 13 years of research.
Fundamental questions remain unanswered over how much bioavailable vitamin A Golden Rice actually produces, and whether it is stable enough to reach markets. There's also evidence it produces teratogenic compounds, which cause birth defects.
Even the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which funded initial research for Golden Rice, stated in a 2001 letter, "... we do not consider Golden Rice the solution to the vitamin A deficiency problem ... the public relations uses of Golden Rice have gone too far."
No animal feeding studies had been done when a series of feeding experiments began with human beings. The controversial experiments included children in China, raising serious ethical issues about feeding an unauthorized genetically engineered novelty to children without informing the children, their parents, or school teachers that the rice was genetically engineered.
The World Health Organization says simple, affordable remedies for vitamin A deficiency already have "averted an estimated 1.25 million deaths since 1998 in 40 countries." Crop diversification and access to diverse food sources are better ways to alleviate malnutrition.
Even if Golden Rice was approved, it still should be labeled so shoppers have a choice.
Trudy Bialic is PCC's public affairs director.