Recently, Washington State had a failed initiative, I 522, that sought to require labeling of genetically modified food. It appeared on the ballot this way: “This measure would require most raw agricultural commodities, processed foods, and seeds and seed stocks, if produced using genetic engineering, as defined, to be labeled as genetically engineered when offered for retail sale.” (All emphases added)
The areas I highlighted are probably the biggest things pushing the balance of defeating this initiative. The word “most” sounds like it covers a lot of foods, thereby making people safer. And while “retail sale” sounds pretty inclusive, it completely skips wholesale markets that supply restaurants. In the actual text of the law, the exceptions are very troublesome. “Food consisting of, or derived from, an animal that has not itself been genetically engineered, regardless of whether the animal has been fed or injected with any food produced by means of genetic engineering” (emphasis added) does not need to be labeled as containing GMOs. If people are worried about the effects of ingesting GMOs themselves, they also want to make sure any meat they are consuming did not itself eat GMO feed. I certainly would. People are already against milk from cows that contain rBST, an artificial growth hormone. So why should they not also be notified of feed or injections that dairy cows had with GMOs? Or meat from cows, pigs, or chickens?
And there are more wide reaching exceptions. Especially for processed foods. Like the processed foods millions of people consume everyday at fast food places like McDonald’s.
There are two exception paragraphs for processed foods. “Any processed food that would be subject to this section solely because one or more processing aids or enzymes were produced or derived with genetic engineering” would be allowed. Also, “Until July 2019, any processed food that would be subject to this section solely because it includes one or more materials produced by genetic engineering, provided the engineered materials in aggregate do not account for more than nine-tenths of one percent of the total weight of the processed food.” (emphasis added)
A couple of definitions should put this in perspective, as provided by the text of the initiative. “‘Processed food’ means any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any food produced from an agricultural commodity that has been subject to canning, smoking, pressing, cooking, freezing, dehydration, fermentation, or milling.” There is no proof that any of these processes remove GMOs, and yet any food subjected to any of these processes DOES NOT have to be labeled as GMO. French fries and hamburgers sold to hundreds of thousands of fast food places around the world would be exempt. Don’t eat fast food? The frozen french fries and hamburger you buy at the store would also be exempt. As a matter of fact, ANY frozen food you would buy at the supermarket would be exempt. For that matter, anything in the grocery store except fresh cuts of meat and fresh vegetables would be exempt from labeling, the exact opposite of what the initiative intended.
So what about processing aids? “(a) A substance that is added to a food during processing of the food but is removed in some manner from the food before it is packaged in its finished form; (b) A substance that is added to a food during processing, is converted into constituents normally present in the food, and does not significantly increase the amount of constituents naturally found in the food; or (c) A substance that is added to a food for its technical or functional effects in the processing but is present in the food at insignificant levels and does not have any technical or functional effect in that finished food.” (emphases added) All these things that are added in the processing of food are allowed to be GMO. Such as corn starch in making pizza crusts. The crusts slide across it very nicely. Some of it remains at the bottom of crusts. What bothers me about this group of definitions is, we have not done enough research into what is actually a significant amount of GMOs as far as effects it has on our bodies.
Another problem with the initiative was that it was written to be under Washington State’s Department of Health and Public Safety. As this is all about food and food production, it should be under the Department of Agriculture, who already have the necessary food inspectors and laboratories in place to carry out the enforcement had this initiative been put into law. The duplicate effort would have cost an already overburdened tax revenue stream in Washington $3.4 million extra over the course of five years. A little over $1 million alone would have been for “program development”. Otherwise known as duplicating the bureaucracy that already existed in the Department of Agriculture.
The most glaring issue with this effort at labeling GMOs is that it only governs food or seed stock produced in the state of Washington itself. Food produced or raised anywhere else in the world is not subject to these rules. Realistically, this is not something that can be managed at a state level because of federal laws concerning interstate commerce. This is something that should be pushed to happen at a federal level. Then, all states would have to comply with the same rules, and international food coming to this country would fall under the same rules when it hit customs.
I really want this to happen, but it needs to happen in a way that completely prohibits GMOs from our food supply until we know what effects, if any, they have on our bodies. It can’t just be this state or that state doing it, and we play Russian Roulette with food from everywhere else. Some who argued with me on this point kept saying “We have to start somewhere!”, and I agree. But I liken this bill to covering a compound fracture with a single band aid. No matter what you say to convince yourself, that little band aid will not stop the bleeding and it will do nothing to reset the bone. It reminds me of Nancy Pelosi’s statement about the Affordable Care Act, “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it…”.
Luckily, Initiative 522 did not pass as written. Hopefully, those who are working to make GMO labeling a reality will learn from their mistakes. Then they can find a way to craft legislation that does not allow exceptions to sneak through and applies to all food consumed in this nation.