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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ads dispute whether pet food would have to be labeled for GMOs

The opening salvo in the battle over the proposal to label genetically modified foods includes ammunition that hit the mark last year in California: Food you buy for Rover would have to be labeled, if it contains those products, recent commercials for opponents say, but steaks you throw on the grill would not.

Wrong on both counts, say supporters of Initiative 522. Pet food isn’t covered by the initiative, but genetically modified meats would have to be labeled if they ever reach the local supermarket.

Each campaign can produce legal theories of the state’s complicated initiative case law to support their claims. The Yes campaign has mounted a response ad that the No campaign is rebutting.

The average voter might wonder whether it’s worth fighting about.

It likely is, because the pet food argument comes from the playbook that defeated a ballot measure last year in California. Proposition 37 had similar wording and many of the same big-spending donors, with major natural-product companies like Mercola and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps contributing to the Yes campaign and chemical companies like Monsanto and DuPont subsidizing the opposition.

Proposition 37 also enjoyed an early lead in public opinion polls, as I-522 does now. But a $44 million campaign turned the tide, in part with an argument that Proposition 37 was poorly written and had major inconsistencies, like requiring labels on canned pet food but not fresh meat.

“Pet food would be covered but meat for human consumption would be exempt,” Dan Newhouse, a former state agriculture secretary, says in recent commercials against I-522.

I-522 doesn’t mention pet food in its 2,448-word text. It does exempt meat that has been fed or injected with genetically modified products from the labeling requirements, but would require meat from a genetically modified animal to be labeled. No genetically modified animals have been approved by the federal government for commercial sale, although the Food and Drug Administration is reviewing a request to allow farm-raised, genetically modified salmon to be sold to the public.

Newhouse doesn’t draw any distinction between animals that eat genetically modified food and those that are genetically modified, a point that has the Yes side crying foul.

The key point is that the initiative doesn’t define “food,” said Rob Maguire, an attorney for the No campaign. So courts would look at the definition in Article 69 of state statutes, which deals with food labeling, along with federal law and the common dictionary definition of food. All include pet food.

“That’s just false,” said Knoll Lowney, attorney for the Yes campaign. The initiative wouldn’t be part of Article 69, but Article 70, so that definition doesn’t apply, he said.

Courts would look first at the initiative, which says in the introductory section that its purpose is “to ensure people are fully informed about whether the food they purchase and eat was produced through genetic engineering,” Lowney said.

If supporters wanted to exempt pet food, they easily could have done so in the initiative, just like they exempted meat and dairy products, medical food and food cooked at a restaurant, Maguire said.

Lowney and Maguire agree that pet food would only have to be labeled if the state Health Department includes it in rules the agency must write if the initiative passes. Lowney said there’s one key difference between I-522 and Proposition 37, despite the similar wording. In California, supporters wanted their law to cover pet food, he said. Washington’s supporters are only concerned about human food.

It wasn’t until after I-522 was drafted that opponents in California made headway by raising the pet food issue. “By the time the whole California thing happened, (I-522) was already out there,” Lowney said.

That meant supporters couldn’t add specific language to exempt pet food. Once an initiative begins gathering signatures, it can’t be changed.