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Originally published Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 3:58 PM

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Guest: Reject I-522 plan to label genetically modified food

Initiative 522, which would require labels on genetically modified food, would not provide consumers with meaningful information about what we eat, writes guest columnist R. James Cook.

Special to The Times

No comments have been posted to this article.


ON Nov. 5, Washington voters will decide on Initiative 522, which would mandate special food-labeling regulations in our state for some foods that may contain ingredients made from genetically engineered crops.

Proponents of I-522 claim it would provide consumers with meaningful information about the foods we eat.

It would not — and here’s why.

I-522 is so poorly written that it would require many foods to be labeled as “genetically engineered” — even when they’re not. And it would exempt other foods from labeling even if they do contain these ingredients.

Genetically engineered crops are varieties that have had one or more genetic traits added by a precise cut-and-splice transfer of DNA from either the same or similar plant, or from another plant or organism.

The process adds a gene for the production of a naturally occurring protein that is new to, and beneficial to, the plant. This process of plant modification has been safely and successfully used to improve food crops for nearly 20 years.

Common genetically engineered food crops grown in the U.S. today include corn, canola, soy and sugar beets. Purified food ingredients such as sugars or oils derived from these crops are indistinguishable from ingredients derived from conventional or organic varieties. Importantly, there are no genetically engineered content or traits in these purified ingredients.

Yet I-522 would require food products that include these purified ingredients to be labeled even if the food itself is not genetically engineered and has no genetically engineered content.

It makes no sense that a bag of granulated sugar made from genetically engineered sugar beets would require a special label, while identical sugar from non-engineered sugar beets would not. While the genetically engineered trait is present in a protein produced by the plant, there is no presence of that protein in the purified food ingredients such as sugar or cooking oil made from these plants.

In fact, if you look at the nutrition labels on oils or sugars, they will accurately state “0% (or 0g) protein.” Yet I-522 would require these foods to be labeled even though the genetically engineered protein is not present.

I-522 would require thousands of food products to be mislabeled as “genetically engineered” even when they’re not. Such a label would be misleading at best, and in many cases false, without providing consumers any information about specific ingredients or amounts of genetically engineered food sources, if any, in the product.

I-522 would require zero presence of any ingredient that may have been derived from, or even stored or transported (commingled) with, a product made from a genetically engineered crop plant in order for a food product to avoid being labeled as such. This would require thousands of common food products to be specially relabeled just for our state unless they are remade with higher-priced, specially handled organic ingredients or those not derived from genetically engineered sources.

Our farmers, food producers and grocery stores would be forced to comply with extensive new record-keeping and documentation requirements for thousands of food ingredients in tens of thousands of products.

The Washington Research Council estimated that I-522’s requirements would increase grocery costs for a family of four by more than $450 a year.

Enforcing the requirements of I-522 would require a new state bureaucracy that would cost taxpayers millions of dollars. It is estimated that 200 new state employees will be required to monitor the tens of thousands of products showing up every day on the thousands of grocery store shelves statewide. And no limit has been set on the costs to taxpayers of meeting the requirements of I-522.

Finally, the requirements of I-522 are so full of special exemptions that many products that do contain, and are made with genetically engineered products, would not be labeled at all.

For example, soy milk from genetically engineered soybeans would require a label but milk from cows fed engineered hay or grain would be exempt. Cereals and veggie burgers would be subject to labeling, but hamburger, steak, chicken or eggs from animals fed engineered grains would be exempt. Dairy products and cheese made with genetically engineered enzymes would be exempt, even though these products would contain detectable levels of genetically engineered proteins.

These requirements make no sense, are not based in sound science and do not exist in any other state. They would cost taxpayers millions, increase grocery prices for Washington families and leave consumers with misleading labels on thousands of food products in our state — providing inaccurate and unreliable information about the foods we buy.

Please check out the facts and join me in voting no on I-522.

R. James Cook is former interim dean of Washington State University College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and co-recipient of the 2011 Wolf Prize in Agriculture.

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