The 411 on 522

What's really included in Washington state's most-watched initiative fight.
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Non-GMO sweet corn

What's really included in Washington state's most-watched initiative fight.

With another $5 million cash injection Friday to the anti-GMO labeling campaign (a tip of the hat to the D.C.-based Grocery Manufacturer's Association), Washington's GMO labeling initiative has become the most- watched local race since we passed gay marriage last fall. The advertising firehose has been unleashed and Washington residents — even those who don't know a GMO from their own elbow — are drowning in paid messaging. 

Which is why we're here: To pick you up, towel you off and tell you what's really in the bill.

What is a GMO and why should I care? 

Check out yesterday's "ABCs of GMOs" for background info on GMOs.  

What is all this hullaballoo about a silly label? 

If Initiative 522 passes this fall, all genetically modified food offered for retail sale in Washington state will be required to be labeled — either on the front of the package or on store shelves. This would apply to seeds, "raw agricultural commodities" (like fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy) and pre-processed and packaged foods. 

Seeds, fruits, veggies, meat and dairy would need to be labeled "genetically engineered." In the case of pre-packaged foods, manufacturers would not be responsible for listing which ingredients are genetically modified — only that their products "May be partially produced with genetic engineering" or are "Partially produced with genetic engineering." 

Currently, some manufacturers voluntarily label food as GMO-free or organic, but with the vast majority of food, it is impossible to tell whether or not it has been genetically modified. Further, many home gardeners may be unknowingly growing genetically modified food if they are not purchasing GMO-free or organic seeds. 

Are there exceptions? 

Food that has been certified organic, restaurant food or food processed for immediate consumption, and medical food would be exempt from labeling.

So would pre-packaged and processed foods that are not genetically engineered themselves, but have been processed with genetically modified enzymes.

Also, alcohol. You are free to carry on drinking genetically modified sauvignons and vodka-tonics in blissful ignorance. 

Further, the bill would give a four-year grace period to processed and packaged foods that contain less than .9 percent of genetically modified ingredients.

The most confusing caveat is this: Animal products or byproducts (meats, cheeses, eggs, milk, etc.) that come from an animal that has been fed genetically modified food or treated with genetically modified drugs would not need to be labeled. This has been misconstrued by some who think it means that genetically modified animal and animal byproducts do not need to be labeled. That is not the case. 

Think of it this way: You yourself are not genetically engineered (as far as we know). And, even if you eat a genetically engineered corn chip or take medicine that's been genetically engineered, you won't suddenly become a genetically engineered you. Neither would livestock. 

For animals that are themselves genetically engineered, their meat or their byproducts (like eggs, milk, butter or yogurt) would still need to be labeled. So far, no genetically engineered animals or their byproducts have been approved for retail sale by the FDA, though the agency is considering genetically engineered salmon. 

When would this thing take effect?

Required labeling would kick in July 1, 2015. Labeling for pre-packaged products with less than .9 percent genetically engineered products would begin July 1st, 2019. 

Still hungry for info? Read the bill yourself. 

Check back tomorrow for "Fact-checking the Ads on 522", which will answer all of your most burning questions: Will this bill hurt small farmers? Will 522 add hundreds of dollars to my shopping bill? 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson was Managing Editor at Crosscut, following tech, culture, media and politics. She founded Crosscut's Community Idea Lab. Previously community manager of the Tribune Company’s Seattle blogging network, her work has also appeared in YES! Magazine and on the Huffington Post, Geekwire, and KBCS 91.3 radio. She served as Communications Director at Strategic News Service, a weekly newsletter that predicts global trends in tech and economics, and Future in Review, an annual tech conference which gathers C-level executives to solve global problems. Her weaknesses include outdoor adventure, bananas with peanut butter and big fluffy dogs.