Major U.S. food and chemical companies are pouring millions of dollars into efforts to block approval of a ballot initiative in Washington state that would make it the first in the United States to require labelling of foods containing genetically modified crops.
Despite early strong support for the measure, a recent poll suggests sentiment against the measure, known as I-522, is growing amid an onslaught of corporate-financed advertising ahead of the Nov. 5 referendum. Voters will decide whether many common grocery items containing ingredients from genetically altered crops should be labelled as such.
Supporters say labelling foods made from genetically modified organisms (GMO) would provide information for consumers to make informed shopping choices. Food and chemical companies say the wording would suggest something is wrong with gene-modified ingredients that the companies believe are safe.
Many foods are made with crops that have been genetically altered. Corn and soy, two top biotech crops, are key ingredients in processed foods from cereal to chips to cookies.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which represents more than 300 food and beverage companies, has put roughly $11 million into fighting the measure, or roughly half of the nearly $22 million raised by opponents of labelling, according to Washington Public Disclosure Commission figures as of Oct. 29.
That far outstrips the roughly $6.8 million raised by supporters of the labelling initiative, according to the Commission.
“They are making this the most expensive race and are desperately adding last-minute money to try and buy this election,” said Liz Larter, spokeswoman for “Yes on 522” campaign, a reference to the ballot measure’s number.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, said in a lawsuit filed Oct. 16 that the grocery group illegally collected and spent more than $7 million while shielding the identity of its contributors.
But the GMA and other opponents say they have corrected any finance filing irregularities and they are trying to turn back a measure that would confuse consumers and have numerous consequences.
“It would require tens of thousands of common food and beverage products to be relabelled exclusively for Washington state unless they are remade with higher-priced, specially developed ingredients,” said Brian Kennedy, GMA spokesman. “The measure will increase grocery costs for a typical Washington family by hundreds of dollars per year.”
The outcome of the Washington vote will be closely watched around the country as more than two dozen U.S. states and the federal government wrestle with whether to require labelling.
A similar labelling measure narrowly failed in the 2012 election in California by a vote of 51.4 per cent against to 48.6 per cent in favor.
A consortium that includes General Mills, Nestle USA , PepsiCo, Monsanto, DuPont and other corporate giants, are the key contributors to the nearly $22 million raised to campaign against the bill.
Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company and top developer of biotech crops, has put in nearly $5.4 million to fight the labelling., including $540,000 added on Monday.
In September, one poll showed support for labelling led opposition by 45 percentage points. But a survey released on Oct. 21 by The Elway Poll, a regional non-partisan public opinion research group, showed support leading by only four points.
David Bronner, president of Escondido, Calif.-based Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps and a supporter of labelling, said the ballot initiative may lose in Washington state, but he sees eventual victory in some state or on a federal level.
The soap company is the chief financial backer for the pro-labelling campaign, contributing more than $1.7 million. It makes an array of cleanser and lotion products it markets as organic.
“We’re in this for a long haul,” Bronner said. “Even if we lose here we’re still feeding the national debate and conversation. We’ll get it eventually.”