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Originally published February 14, 2013 at 7:08 PM | Page modified February 14, 2013 at 7:51 PM

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Initiative to require labels on GMO foods debated

State senators hear pros, cons of Initiative 522.

Seattle Times business reporter

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Anyone wanting to get to the bottom of the debate about genetically modified foods will have a long wait.

One side says there is no meaningful evidence that GMOs are harmful, and that forcing food companies to label them would be expensive and cumbersome, especially on a state-by-state basis. They say the debate should be at the national level.

The other side says consumers have a right to know whether foods contain GMOs, particularly because the Food and Drug Administration allows companies to mostly self-regulate their safety.

With the FDA considering approving GMO salmon, labeling supporters say Washington state is a better place for debate than a gridlocked Congress.

Parties on both sides squared off in Olympia on Thursday, arguing their cases for more than two hours in a hearing before the state Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water and Rural Economic Development.

The Legislature is considering Initiative 522, a measure backed by PCC Natural Markets and others that would require companies to label foods with GMO ingredients. There would be some exemptions, for example for restaurants and for food from animals that have been fed GMO foods.

A date for a similar hearing before the House of Representatives has not been set.

With a legislative initiative, lawmakers can either enact it, modify it or do nothing. They typically do not enact initiatives directly.

If the Legislature does nothing, I-522 will go on the November ballot for a public vote. If the Legislature modifies the measure, then both the original and the modified version will appear on the ballot.

Voters defeated a similar measure last year in California, where proponents of labeling raised $9.2 million against $46 million from opponents, which included Monsanto, Nestle and Hershey.

George Kimbrell, an attorney at the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, helped write both measures. He testified Thursday that one of the main reasons for opposition is GMO foods do not have traits, such as better flavor, that appeal to consumers.

“Labeling will reveal this, and they are justifiably worried,” Kimbrell said.

Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist with Consumers Union, the public-policy arm of Consumer Reports, also spoke in support of the measure.

He pointed out that last year, the American Medical Association’s main policymaking body voted to change its policy on “bioengineered” foods. It called for “mandatory premarket systematic safety assessments.”

Other supporters of I-522 included representatives for the Washington State Nurses Association, the Environmental Working Group and the Coalition to Protect Puget Sound Habitat.

Martina Newell-McGloughlin, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California at Davis, opposes it.

“Billions of people have eaten [genetically engineered foods] with no ill effect,” she testified. “This type of legislation is focusing on issues that are not relevant to consumers.”

GMO labeling might unnecessarily scare people, she said, and likened it to putting labels on tomatoes and potatoes saying they are part of the “deadly nightshade family.”

“That’s accurate, but would mean they might not eat a tomato or potato again,” she said.

Robert Maguire, an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine who represented the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said I-522 would be a financial boon to trial lawyers.

“The interest here is consumer curiosity,” he said of GMO labeling. He mentioned a case in Vermont where an appeals court cited the First Amendment in striking down a hormone-labeling law for milk.

“I-522 will suffer that same fate in Washington” if it becomes law, Maguire said.

Other opponents included representatives for the Northwest Food Processors Association, the Northwest Grocery Association and the Washington State Farm Bureau.

But a handful of farmers traveled to Olympia to speak out against GMOs.

Lynn Polson, a Washington wheat farmer, said he uses chemical sprays and likes technology but does not favor GMO wheat, which is reportedly years away from being available, because it could mean major financial losses.

More than 60 countries, including China, India, Japan and all the countries in the European Union, require GMO labeling. Many would not buy GMO wheat, Polson said.

Although he is not sure how much it would cost to comply with a GMO labeling law, he said, “It will cost us a fortune if we lose our customers.”

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or Twitter @AllisonSeattle.

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