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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