Voters in Washington on Tuesday rejected Initiative 522, a ballot measure to label groceries containing genetically engineered ingredients that was leading in the polls for weeks before big biotech and processed food companies injected millions of dollars into the campaign, including more than $7 million in allegedly illegal donations from a trade group that concealed its corporate donors.
Some mail-in votes still need to be counted, and the Yes on 522 group had yet to concede as of Thursday morning, but Washington state officials reported that 54 percent of voters opposed Initiative 522 and 45.9 percent supported labeling. The No on 522 campaign had already claimed victory.
Had it passed, the ballot initiative would have made Washington the first state to require labels for most groceries containing genetically engineered ingredients, also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
The campaign was the most expensive in the state's history, drawing national attention and millions of dollars in out-of-state campaign cash. The No on 522 campaign raised an unprecedented $22 million, largely from big biotech firms and junk food companies. The Yes on 522 raised almost $8 million from GMO opponents and natural foods and products companies.
The Grocery Manufacturers of America donated $11 million from its member companies to No on 522 and was sued by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson in October for concealing donors. The trade group then voluntarily revealed that members such as Pepsico ($2.4 million), Coca-Cola ($1.5 million) and Nestle ($1.5 million) gave hefty donations to defeat the labeling initiative.
The trade group began planning for the campaign about a year ago after it joined Monsanto and other labeling opponents in raising a whopping $46 million to defeat a similar GMO labeling initiative in California last year. At the time, the Grocery Manufacturers Association directed its employees to "scope out a funding mechanism to address the GMO issue . . . while better shielding individual companies from attack for providing funding," according to evidence cited in the attorney general's complaint.
With its record-breaking war chest, the No on 522 campaign beat back labeling proponents in the polls with flashy mailers and ad blitzes on radio and television. Labeling, opponents argued, would raise food prices, confuse consumers and hurt farmers. The campaign looked a lot like the "no" campaign in California and shared many of the same corporate donors, including biotech companies such as Monsanto, which spent $8 million in California and more than $5 million in Washington.
The Yes on 522 campaign argued that consumers have a right to know what's in their food and vowed to continue to fight for GMO labeling.
"No matter the outcome, we helped advance the national GMO labeling movement by raising awareness about the need for transparency and accountability in the food industry," said Yes on 522 campaign manager Delana Jones.
Despite victories for labeling opponents in Washington and California, a number of polls show that Americans overwhelmingly support GMO labeling. Most recently, a New York Times poll in July showed that 93 percent of American voters support labeling food with GMO ingredients.