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Organizers confident Washington state non-GMO initiative will hit signature goal

By Hank Schultz , 17-Dec-2012

A Washington state ballot initiative that seeks to require GMO labeling is nearing its goal of 320,000 signatures, a goal organizers are confident that it will reach.

“We are in the last three weeks of our signature drive.  We hired paid signature gathers and we have volunteers. We are locked and loaded,” Chris McManus, one of the sponsors of the initiative, told FoodNavigator-USA.

The initiative, I-522, titled "The People's Right To Know Genetically Engineered Food Act" would require labeling of food products (including dietary supplements) that contain GMO ingredients. It bears some resemblance to California’s Proposition 37, which went down to defeat in  the November election.

“Our language is similar (to Prop 37) up to a certain point.  What we are asking our Legislature to do is to treat us like the rest of the world.  Currently there are 49 countries that require GMO labeling,” McManus said.

An initiative must gather slightly more than 241,000 valid signatures to be certified by the state, and state officials suggest turning in at least 320,000 signatures to account for the percentage of signatures that will be deemed invalid. The initiative drive stands at about 300,000 signatures, with a deadline of Dec. 31.

 Initiatives in Washington state become new laws on the state’s books, not amendments to the state constitution as they do in some other states such as Colorado.   Once an initiative is certified, state lawmakers can then decide to adopt it into law.  If they decline, the measure goes on to the voters.

“We are actually at the point now where we are confident we will have enough signatures to get our legislators to seriously consider adopting this measure,” McManus said.

Broad support

The initiative has garnered significant support from some groups in the natural products industry that opposed Prop 37, McManus said.  For example, he said the initiative had gotten some financial support from the Northwest Chapter of the Natural Products Association.

McManus said this was due in part to avoiding language about GMOs and products with ‘natural’ on the label that gave pause with Prop 37.  Also, the initiative was written in such a way to avoid putting additional burdens on smaller companies.

“There is no more responsibility that will fall on the small store owner than before with this,” McManus said. Suppliers, he said, just need to, “create a simple affidavit saying that their material is non GMO.  If they supply that affidavit down the supply line, that affidavit will come all the way down to the store owner and that’s it.”

Bounty hunter clause?

Another aspect of Prop 37, the so-called “bounty hunter clause,” caused the Council for Responsible Nutrition to come out against that measure. This allows law firms representing private citizens to bring suit to enforce the proposition. California’s Proposition 65 has created an atmosphere in which class action lawsuits filed over that proposition’s language have become a lucrative business, and opponents of Prop 37 feared a repetition of that situation.

McManus said I-522 is written in such a way to avoid creating a situation in which many class action lawsuits could be filed in the state over GMO labeling, and said the enforcement of the provision resides with the state Department of Health acting through the attorney general.

Nevertheless, the initiative does contain the following paragraph in its enforcement section:

“An action to enjoin a violation of this chapter may be brought in any court of competent jurisdiction by any person in the public interest if the action is commenced more than sixty days after the person has given notice of the alleged violation to the department, the attorney general, and to the alleged violator.”

Economic issue for Washington

McManus said the issue of GMOs is especially sensitive in Washington because of the state’s strong agricultural sector.

“It is also a matter of economics for us as a state.  We export about $6 billion of food products per year. Our biggest exports beyond Boeing and Microsoft are wheat and apples.  We have farmers that are concerned about GMO wheat.

“Next year we are slated to be the testing ground for the GMO apple,” McManus said.

“We are not going after any specific ingredients themselves; we are just to get GMOs labeled in our state,” he said.