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Outsiders taking initiative on food labeling in Washington state

An unprecedented sum of money is changing the debate on Washington's Initiative 522, a ballot measure to require labeling of genetically engineered foods – and most the funding is coming from out of state.

October 30, 2013|By Maria L. La Ganga

SEATTLE — A year after Proposition 37 narrowly failed in California, the labeling of genetically engineered foods is back on the ballot in Washington state, complete with a lawsuit by the state attorney general, a barrage of ads and a stark example of money's effect on politics.

I-522, as it is called, officially became the most expensive initiative battle in Washington history this week, with a not-so-Washington twist.

Out-of-state money is driving the debate.

Of the $33 million raised to fight the labeling effort, about $10,000 came from donors within the state — making up just 0.03% of the "no" campaign war chest. In comparison, 25% of the $8.4 million raised to help pass food labeling has been local.

Lori Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, says there has never been an initiative campaign in the state where outside money has had as much effect.

"There have been other initiatives that the money primarily came from out of state," she said, "but not as much money.… It just speaks to who has a stake in the results."

The region with the biggest financial impact on Washington state's food-labeling initiative? As of Wednesday afternoon, the answer would be Washington, D.C., home of the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. In second place is Missouri, home of agricultural giant Monsanto, a leading producer of genetically engineered seed.

The fight against labeling of genetically engineered ingredients is "a battle the corporations are fighting on their own," said Shaun Bowler, a UC Riverside political scientist who studies the initiative process. "Usually you can find someone in state…. Given the numbers, there seems to be little sign of that."

The fact that out-of-state money is fueling the I-522 campaign on both sides does not surprise Matt Barreto, associate professor of political science at the University of Washington. What he finds most troubling is the extent and the fact that it "raises the larger question of democratic accountability."

"Even on the 'yes' side … 75% is coming from outside," Barreto said. "If the people of Washington state want these initiatives, why are we letting the ad and influence campaign to come almost single-handedly from outside the state? Would we want others from outside the state to vote?"

And there is no question that the ad campaign is having an effect. The airwaves are filled with I-522 ads — mostly urging voters to cast their ballots against the initiative — and online ads pop up regularly too.

In September, the nonpartisan Elway Poll showed that food labeling was favored by a sizable 66% to 21% of those surveyed. Six weeks later — during which 81% of those polled said they had seen the I-522 advertising swirl — the measure was only 4 percentage points ahead, well within the margin of error.

"I've never seen a swing like this," said Stuart Elway, president of Seattle-based Elway Research, who has been polling in the Pacific Northwest for two decades and has gauged voter sentiment on 70 or 80 initiatives. "Over the course of a year, from May to November maybe. But not in six weeks."

The Grocery Manufacturers Assn. is by far the biggest donor to the "no" campaign, and until two weeks ago, the source of its money — more than $11 million donated — was shrouded in mystery. That's when state Atty. Gen. Bob Ferguson sued the group, charging it with "concealing the true source of the contributions received and made."

Since then, the group has disclosed that its biggest donors include Pepsico, Nestle USA, Coca-Cola Co. and General Mills. A spokesman for the grocery manufacturers did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

"We must deter these types of violations and ensure our elections remain transparent," Ferguson said in a statement. "For this reason, disclosure is just one remedy we sought in the lawsuit we filed.… We also continue to seek penalties, attorneys fees, and other relief for violating the Washington state campaign disclosure laws."

If I-522 passes, Washington would be the first state to put in place a system of labeling foods that contain genetically modified organisms. Since 2012, when I-522's sister ballot measure failed in California, legislatures in Connecticut and Maine have passed labeling laws, but both require several other states to act before theirs go into effect.

Whole Foods, the largest U.S. natural-goods specialty retailer, decreed in March that all items sold in its American and Canadian stores would be labeled for genetically engineered ingredients by 2018. And earlier this month, two Los Angeles City Council members introduced a measure to "prohibit the growth of genetically modified crops within city limits."

Supporters of I-522 see such actions as part of a groundswell in their favor.

"Clearly the issue is really top of radar," said Stacy Malkan, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth. "All eyes are now on Washington to see if we can get labeling here…. My view is that companies are fundamentally altering the genetic code of our most important food crops, and we have a right to know about that."

But Dana Bieber, a spokeswoman for the "No on 522" campaign, played down the movement toward labeling and the alleged dangers of genetically modified foods, which she described as "identical to nongenetically engineered foods."

"The more people know about 522, the less they like it," Bieber said. "Once they find out that it's inaccurate and misleading and will raise grocery costs by $450 a year, support drops off."

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