Another GMO Labeling Iniative on the Horizon, This Time in Washington

Last week on January 3, 2013, sponsors of Initiative 522 (I-522), a measure that would require the labeling of certain genetically engineered foods, filed their petitions with the Washington Secretary of State’s Office for review.

The filing of I-522 comes in the wake of Proposition 37, a similar initiative that was ultimately rejected by California voters in November 2012. If enacted, I-522 would require that any food offered for retail sale in Washington that is, or may have been, entirely or partly produced with genetic engineering to be labeled as follows:

  • In the case of a raw agricultural commodity, the package offered for retail sale must clearly and conspicuously display the words “genetically engineered” on the front of the package, or where such a commodity is not separately packaged or labeled, the label appearing on the retail store shelf or bin where such a commodity is displayed for sale must display the words “genetically engineered;”
  • In the case of any processed food, the front of the package of such food must clearly and conspicuously bear the words “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering;” and
  • In the case of any seed or seed stock, the seed or seed stock container, sales receipt or any other reference to identification, ownership, or possession, must state clearly and conspicuously that the seed is “genetically engineered” or “produced with genetic engineering.”

Like Proposition 37, I-522 exempts certain food from the genetically engineered labeling requirements. Specifically, the following certified organic products, alcoholic beverages, medical foods, food sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant, products unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material, food made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves, food processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients, and any processed food that would be subject to the labeling requirement solely because one or more processing aids or enzymes were produced or derived with genetic engineering.

Now that the petitions have been filed, they must be reviewed to confirm that the sponsors of the initiative have obtained the necessary 241,153 valid signatures of Washington registered voters. Once the signatures are verified, the initiative will then be turned to the Washington State Legislature for further action:

  1. The Legislature can adopt the initiative as proposed, in which case it becomes law without a vote of the people;
  2. The Legislature can reject or refuse to act on the proposed initiative, in which case the initiative must be placed on the ballot at the next state general election; or
  3. The Legislature can approve an alternative to the proposed initiative, in which case both the original proposal and the Legislature's alternative must be placed on the ballot at the next state general election.

The Washington Legislature will convene on Monday, January 14, 2013 and will be in session until April 28, 2013. Stoel Rives attorneys will report on the status on I-522 as it moves through the Legislature.

In addition to Washington's I-522, a bill that would mandate the labeling of food and commercial feed containing "genetically modified material" has been pre-filed in the New Mexico State Senate. Senate Bill (SB) 18, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe), seeks to amend the New Mexico Food Act to require a disclosure label on any product containing more than one percent of a genetically modified material.

Secretary of Agriculture Emphasizes Safety of U.S. Pork

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack issued a statement today emphasizing that U.S. pork products are safe and that there is no evidence that U.S. swine have been infected with the swine flu virus.

Calling trade restrictions on pork or pork products unnecessary, Vilsack said any such restrictions would be inconsistent with World Organization for Animal Health guidelines. “[I]t is not necessary to introduce specific measures for international trade in swine or their products, nor are consumers of pork products at risk of infection,” Vilsack said. The complete statement is available here.

A report in The New York Times notes that pork producers are questioning whether it is appropriate to call the virus “swine flu” given that there is no evidence of swine infection. The report states that officials in Thailand, one of the world’s largest meat exporters, have started calling the virus “Mexican flu.”  An Israeli deputy health minister reportedly said Israel would follow suit to keep Jews from having to say the word “swine.”

Pork Producers Feel Effects of Swine Flu

Pork producers are feeling the effects of the swine flu as the number of reported cases of the virus increases.  Stock prices for Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor, and Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, fell 12 percent and 9 percent today, respectively.  The Wall Street Journal reports that the prices of hogs, corn, and soybeans also dropped today.  About 16 percent of U.S. pork exports have been shipped to Mexico over the past year – a country where so far 149 people have died from the swine flu.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health officials have emphasized that swine flu viruses are not transmitted by food and people cannot contract the virus by eating pork or pork products.  That fact alone does not seem to be enough to quell consumers’ fears. MarketWatch earlier today quoted a pork industry analyst as saying the industry wants to avoid a slip of exports and prices akin to the 2003 avian flu outbreak in Asia.  Analyst Heather Jones said she believes the pork industry “needs to undertake an aggressive and widespread informational marketing campaign.”

Meanwhile, the Associated Press is reporting that Seattle-based Starbucks Corp. announced today that it is closing 10 of its Mexico City cafes in response to the swine flu outbreak and pursuant to instructions from the Mexican government.