Washington moved a step closer recently to making food-labeling initiative 522 into a law as supporters turned in the required signatures.
The initiative would make Washington the first U.S. state to require that all genetically modified seeds used by farmers as well as food with genetically modified ingredients be labeled as such.
The signatures all but assure that the initiative would be certified by the secretary of state and sent on to the state legislature, which could adopt the measure or leave it to a popular vote on the November 2013 election ballot.
The initiative comes two months after California voters rejected a similar ballot measure in a nearly $50 million advertising campaign funded largely by seed company Monsanto Co, Pepsi Co Inc, the Coca-Cola Co and other food and agriculture companies. They argued that labeling would raise food prices and hurt farmers.
According to a Reuters report, Trudy Bialic, a spokeswoman for PCC Natural Markets, a Seattle-based food co-op backing the initiative, said “This is not just a right-to-know issue. This is much bigger than foodies. This is about preserving export markets."
Bialic said 62 countries either ban, restrict, or require labeling of genetically modified food, and that apple and wheat farmers in Washington would face a loss of exports if those products were ever genetically modified without being so labeled.
Currently the U.S. government allows only a handful of food crops to be genetically modified, including corn, soy, canola, sugar beets, yellow squash, zucchini and papaya.
And many popular processed foods -- including soy milk, soup and breakfast cereals -- are made with biotech crops whose genetic traits have been manipulated, often to make them resistant to insects and pesticides.
But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determined in 1992 that labels are not needed for genetically modified crops that are "substantially equivalent" to conventional crops.
Producers of GMO crops insist they are safe, but some health, environment and consumer advocates cite studies suggesting they can be harmful both to the environment and to animal and human health.
Advocates dramatized this concern by delivering the signatures in an ambulance labeled “GMO Foods.”
On the federal level, a petition demanding the FDA require all genetically modified food to be labeled was started last fall and has gathered 1.3 million signatures, said Sue McGovern, spokeswoman for the effort, called Just Label It.
The FDA has yet to respond to the petition, she said. In the meantime, some activists are hoping to make their case at the state level.