I-522 effort a victory regardless of outcome, says Stonyfield Farms chairman

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Genetically modified organism

Just Label It advocates for a GMO ingredient mention similar to this one.
Just Label It advocates for a GMO ingredient mention similar to this one.
I-522 is a victory for the proponents of GMO labeling, no matter how the final polls might turn out, attendees on a United Natural Products Alliance webinar were told yesterday.

“When the dust settles the work that has been done on I-522 will be seen as a victory,”​ said Gary Hirschberg, chairman of Stonyfield Farms and the Just Label It campaign, which is seeking a mandatory federal rule on GMO labeling.  Hirshberg was one the presenters on the webinar, which also included Rachael Padgett of the Yes on 522 campaign, Courtney Pineau from the Non GMO Project and Ashish Talati from the law firm Amin Talati.

Final returns still coming in

Padgett laid out her organization’s experience in campaigning for passage of Washington state’s I-522 initiative on GMO labeling.  While major news organizations have called that mail-in only election in favor of the No side, Padgett said that significant numbers of votes from the hotbed of support for the initiative have yet to be counted.

“We are not conceding yet.  King County (Seattle and its suburbs) is our strongest base, and in King county we are trending at 56% (in favor). There are 128,000 votes that haven’t been counted yet in King County,”​ Padgett said.

“By the end of this week and early next week we will see what those numbers really look like and we expect them to tighten up a lot,”​ she said.  The election results won’t be certified until later in November, she said.

12 donors contributed to defeat measure

The $22 million that was poured into the campaign to defeat the measure came from only 12 donors of record, Padgett said. 

There were several individuals that contributed a combined $650, and the rest came from biotech firms such as Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, Dow and DuPont.  The biggest chunk of the money—$11 million—was funneled through the Grocery Manufacturers Association with the aim to shield the member companies that put up the money from negative publicity, Padgett said.  The identities of the companies that contributed anonymously via the GMA were only revealed after the group was sued by Washington attorney general Bob Ferguson.

That massive donation, and the way it was assembled, has been an revelation for proponents of the measure in that it illustrates how far companies are willing to go to protect their investments in GMO technology.

“We were all surprised when they were willing to circumvent election law to conceal their donations,”​ Padgett said.

For Hirshberg, the revelation that came out of that donor list was the companies, like Kraft, Heinz and Unilever, that had donated to defeat California’s mandatory GMO labeling initiative Proposition 37 but decided against contributing to the Washington campaign.

“Many companies are starting to back off.  Where the next battleground will be is in the farm bill.  There is an attempt to introduce a rider that would essentially override state efforts,”​ Hirshberg said.

In any case, the group Hirshberg chairs, Just Label It, views a national solution as the ultimate goal.

“We need a federal solution and that solution has to be mandatory,”​ Hirshberg said.

FDA mandate vs. legislation

Hirshberg said Just Label It views a rule making procedure by FDA to be preferable to legislation.  In his view the agency clearly has the authority to mandate the labeling of GMO ingredients. 

“Under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act FDA is required to make known changes in food processing that are not apparent to consumers, but this has not been the case with GMO foods,”​ he said.

Hirshberg said the decision that foods containing genetically engineered ingredients were not materially different from conventional foods and therefore did not require a label was taken by a small group chaired by then-vice present Dan Quayle in 1992.

“This voluntary guideline had no citizen input. It was a rule put in place by a very biased group and it remains in place today. Since 1992 FDA has mandated lots of other food labels, like country of origin, radiation or wild vs. farmed,”​ he said.

Ingredient deck mention

Hirshberg said the group is not looking for a big front-of-package warning label. Something like “may contain genetically modified ingredients”​ at  the end of the ingredient deck would suffice so that consumers can make their own choices.

“We are not talking about a skull and crossbones. We would be perfectly satisfied to see it mentioned in the ingredients panel,”​ he said.

Hirshberg said there is growing evidence that the use of GMO technology has altered the environment in undesirable ways, such as the rise of resistant weeds and pests requiring the application of greater amounts of more noxious chemicals.

“The big issue from my vantage point is that one of the major claims with GE crops is that we would see dramatic reduction in chemical usage.  Just the opposite has happened. What unites us is the belief that is in an unproven technology and that consumers do have the right to know. We believe that the Quayle voluntary guideline from 1992 is obsolete,”​ he said.

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2 comments

A Washington Voter's opinion

Posted by Wendy Repovich,

I agree with Steve's comments below that it is almost impossible to write a good law for something like this because there will always be exceptions. The one most prominent was dog food that included GMO foods fed to any animals that became part of the food had to be labeled, but meat for humans whether fed GMO or not did not. Why would we want to be more worried about our pets than ourselves? I would like to suggest that instead of trying to cover everything in a bill it might be much easier to work with the industries that can benefit by declaring themselves non-GMO like organic foods, which have to be certified non-GMO to receive the label. That would serve the same purpose in the short-term while all the officials figure out whether GMO labeling is something that makes sense, fiscally, and physiologically. It would allow for more research to take place, to see if there are differences between even GMO foods. There was an excellent, well balanced article in the November 2013 Tuft's University Health & Nutrition Letter entitled Should you worry about GMOs? www.tuftshealthletter.com. One example of a possible GMO beneficial food is something called Golden Rice which is fortified with beta carotene (for Vitamin A) for third world countries where many children are deficient in Vitamin A and 250,000 to 500,000 children are known to be deficient. Aren't we all for helping those in need? Let's calm down the rhetoric on both sides, and figure this out instead of just making claims of what might happen.

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New definition of victory

Posted by Steve,

I-522 lost because more people voted against it than for it. The "big food" contributors cast no ballots. To state that big food bought the election does not give much credit to the intelligence of the voters. The major newspapers in the state came out against it. I-522 was written poorly, giving labeling exemptions to special categories such as organic food. By the way, some contributors for I-522 were organic companies, which would have been exempt from the law.
This was not a "right to know" initiative. It was an initiative meant to demonize GMO food by requiring a pejorative label. The majority of voting Washingtonians are glad it failed.

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