The “public’s right to know” can be a powerful and important selling point for an initiative, but Initiative 522 is a clumsy, clunky effort that diminishes the measure’s benefits. The statewide initiative should be rejected by voters in the Nov. 5 election.
I-522 would require labeling on certain foods in order to inform customers if a product contains genetically modified organisms. The labels, when applicable, would say “genetically engineered” or “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering” — and the law would require such labels to be shown “clearly and conspicuously” on the front of the package. This would apply to packaged foods that have any detectable trace of a biotech nutrient — even in the product’s least-prevalent ingredient.
Increasingly, consumers are concerned with the manner in which their food is grown and processed. But I-522 would take that to an extreme, engaging in fear mongering with conspicuous labels that could economically hurt Washington farmers and food providers if the state becomes the first to require such labeling. While supporters of the measure say they have modeled the proposal on labeling requirements in Europe, the European Union does not place a banner on the front of the box; it places information about engineered products on the side along with other nutritional information. This would seem to be a more reasonable and measured solution, allowing interested consumers to easily find the information they seek without forcing a scarlet letter upon certain products.
Many of the discussions surrounding I-522 have been held before. In 1990, the federal Nutrition Labeling and Education Act mandated that food companies begin placing labels with nutritional information on packaged foods. The labels, providing data about riboflavin, magnesium, and vitamin D — as well as other nutrients — appeared on all products by 1995 and now are an established part of the shopping landscape. They have helped create more informed consumers, and we would hope that information about genetically engineered products will someday do the same. Yet I-522 is not the proper avenue for that.
The fact is that farmers and scientists have been creating hybrid forms of plants and animals for centuries, and humans have been eating them for centuries without demonstrable problems. Genetic engineering has created higher-yield plants that have helped reduce hunger all over the world. Genetically modified organisms are worthy of attention but not worthy of the alarm suggested by ominous labels on the front of the package.
I-522, meanwhile, contains too many inconsistencies to warrant support. It requires fruits, vegetables, and grain-based products to be labeled, but exempts meat and dairy products that come from animals fed by GMO grains. It also exempts restaurants, including fast-food outlets, from providing information to consumers about genetically engineered foods — a fact that seems to undermine supporters’ arguments about the public’s right to know.
In 2012, the American Medical Association’s Council on Science and Public Health concluded: “Despite strong consumer interest in mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods, the FDA’s science-based labeling policies do not support special labeling without evidence of material differences between bioengineered foods and their traditional counterparts.”
Requiring clear and conspicuous labels on the front of packaging would neither protect the public health nor help Washington farmers.