November 8, 2013 11:30 am

Washington state initiative to label GMO foods failing after influx of out-of-state money

This year's World Food Prize is going to a Belgian scientist and two researchers in the United States for their innovations that brought the world genetically modified crops.

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SEATTLE – A Washington state ballot measure requiring mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods is failing in early returns.

The campaign over Initiative 522 has been one of the costliest initiative fights in state history, drawing millions of dollars from out of state.

The measure was failing 45 per cent to 55 per cent with more than 980,000 ballots counted Tuesday night.

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“We’re delighted with the vote tonight,” said Dana Bieber, a spokeswoman for the No on 522 campaign. Voters “gave a clear message. The more they looked at the initiative the less they liked it.”

But labeling supporters weren’t conceding.

READ MORE: Farmers union protests genetically modified alfalfa in eastern Canada

“This is far from over and we have several days of vote counting ahead,” said Delana Jones, campaign manager for the Yes on 522 campaign, noting that thousands of ballots in liberal-leaning King County had not yet been counted. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Voters in Washington, which has a vote-by-mail system, must postmark their ballots by Tuesday so more ballots are left to count.

If voters approve I-522, Washington would be the first state to put in place labeling requirements for genetically modified foods.

Early polling showed voters favoured the measure. But a barrage of TV and radio spots financed by a food industry group and five biotechnology companies has helped narrow the gap. The opposition outspent supporters about 3 to 1.

The opposition has raised $22 million to defeat I-522 and had spent much of that by Election Day. Hefty contributions came from Monsanto Co., DuPont Pioneer and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which collected millions in donations from the nation’s top food companies, including Nestle SA, General Mills Inc., Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc.

READ MORE: Farmers say entire organic industry at risk in GM alfalfa debate

Many of those companies mounted a $46 million defence to defeat a similar food-labeling measure in California last year.

Supporters of I-522 have raised about $7.9 million, backed by Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, natural food companies and consumer groups.

Only about 6 per cent of the roughly $30 million raised by both sides has come from within Washington state, according to campaign finance reports.

Supporters say consumers have the right to know what’s in the food they buy, while opponents say the measure would lead to higher food costs.

Under I-522, seeds or foods containing GMO ingredients offered for retail sale would require a label starting in 2015. Some foods are exempt, including restaurant food, alcohol, certified organic food and medicine.

Most GMO crops such as field corn and soybean are used for animal feed or as ingredients in processed foods including breakfast cereal, potato chips, baked goods and sodas.

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