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i-522: the basic rules, and the exemptions

Posted by on in Food Politics
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This is Part 1 in a short web series relating to i-522, a ballot inititiave that aims to label genetically engingeered food sold in Washington state. We’ll also be addressing production issues relating to food artisans, and seed-related concerns for Washington’s commodity farmers.

Last week I had a phone call with one of my favorite local farmers, Rhonda Gothberg. Rhonda runs a farmstead goat cheese operation in the Skagit Valley; her background is in nursing, and her barn has a near hospital-like cleanliness. She’s passionate about health standards, both for her herd and for her customers. She had asked me online if I had a few minutes to chat with her about i-522, the initiative that wants to label genetically modified food in Washington.

Rhonda and I ended up talking for a long time, about everything from the cost of making new plates to print her labels to the feed-making process (she worked with a vet to develop the mix, which is custom blended and ground at a mill in her area; it’s so good that other goat farms have adopted its use) to the frustration we both have that customers can’t always know what’s in their food, and how those customers—meaning ourselves, and our neighbors, and friends—should have full, easy access to that information. As she asked questions, I realized I needed to go back and re-read the (rather brief) text to the initiative, because I didn’t want to accidentally misinform her. I also realized that if this thoughtful woman was this concerned about the initiative, there would be more like her. And they might give up and skip voting, or just vote no because they weren’t sure what voting yes would mean. Here are two major points about i-522.

  • There will be no new agency in state or local governments to support this. It’ll be enforced through the health department, who will have the power to levy fines against non-conforming product labels. A company has 60 days to comply after they’ve been notified, and if they don’t, the fines start accruing. It’s no different than a company having to post potential allergens or nutritional information on their labels.
  • There is absolutely no reason to believe that our food costs will escalate if i-522 passes. King County passed laws requiring that restaurants with more than 10 locations posted their calories. Many of the companies said they couldn’t bear the expense, and that they were being unfairly targeted, but ultimately everyone complied. There was no drastic price increase, and if a few locations went out of business, there’s certainly no reason to think it was because of labeling. Major manufacturers change their labels frequently, to promote a movie or sporting event, tout a health benefit or advertise a contest; we don’t see a price jump every time a label change is made. GMOs are outright banned in many countries, and those bans aren’t credited as the cause of soaring commodity food costs; it’s crop failure, transportation and a growing population that’s at root. 

When Rhonda and I spoke, we were operating on the assumption that she would need to label her cheese. The initiative wants raw agricultural commodities labeled “genetically engineered” on the package, store shelf or bin. Processed food will need a label on the front of its package which says “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering”. The last category is seeds or seed stock, with labels on their containers or sales receipts, featuring the words “genetically engineered” or “produced with genetic engineering.” Cheese is a processed food, and since she wasn’t certain that all of her grain sources were GMO-free, it seemed like she needed a label. All of the alternatives we discussed were complex, expensive, or both. Corn and soy make up a small amount of the feed her herd is given; switching to certified organic would be GMO-free, but absurdly expensive, and farmstead cheese is already pretty steep at retail. Revamping the feed mix to remove those ingredients might be possible, but since her animals are thriving, she’s hesitant to redesign their protein sources. Oats, grass, flax and a vitamin mix are also part of the diet, and sourcing certified GMO-free vitamin supplements might be downright impossible. Redesigning all her labels would be at minimum a $6,500 investment. The alternative of slapping a pre-printed “may be partially produced with genetic engineering” sticker on top of her cheese would be affordable, but unappealing to someone who both cares about her packaging and fears that customers would see sticker and turn away without another thought.

This is where the exemptions come in. The first exemption applies to Rhonda’s situation, but also to plenty of others.

  • Animal-based foods, including eggs, all dairy products and meat, only require labeling if the animal itself is genetically engineered. If some—or all—of a chicken’s feed is GMO, their eggs do not need a label. The feed itself does need to be labeled, which means that Rhonda will know for sure if the ingredients in the feed mix are GMO, and she can work to replace them as is possible, or not, as she sees fit. I told her that if she started making cheese from a genetically engineered jellyfish-goat, she’d need to label the cheese…and we’d also have to have a talk about that. 
  • Restaurants don’t need to label their foods, and alcoholic beverages don’t need a GMO label, either. Neither do foods that are simply not produced with genetic modification; an example of this might be a bottled 100% fruit juice.
  • Processed foods that are less than 1% genetically engineered don’t need a label until 2019, which gives their makers plenty of time to switch to a different source for that ingredient if they are so inclined.
  • Products that are certified GMO-free, like many of the legumes grown in the Palouse region, and a sizeable percentage of wheat grown in Washington, will not be required to label, although they’ll need to prove that their product is kept separate from engineered varieties during packaging.

In the next blog article, I’m going to talk more specifically about other kinds of processed foods that don’t fall under the animal feed exemption, and how the labeling might affect their companies.

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