I-522 could raise prices, scientists say

Staff writerOctober 9, 2013 

A new report by the Washington State Academy of Sciences says Initiative 522’s requirement to label genetically modified foods could come with costs to consumers.

The Legislature declined to act on I-522 this year, sending it to this fall’s ballot. But lawmakers did ask the academy to take a look at the measure, which would mandate labeling for most foods and seed products.

The panel of researchers assembled by the academy to answer questions about I-522 was co-chaired by Thomas Marsh, an economics professor at Washington State University, and Eugene Nester, a professor emeritus of microbiology at the University of Washington.

Their report shies away from making a firm statement about exactly how much food costs might increase — saying only that higher costs are likely.

“Mandatory labeling, especially at a state versus federal level, is likely to affect trade and impose higher costs on firms producing and selling products in Washington,” the report says in a section describing the I-522 impact on policy and trade. “These costs are likely to be passed on to the consumer, resulting in higher food prices. Importantly, these costs will be borne by firms and consumers for both GM and non-GM foods, as labeling foods as non-GM will require oversight costs.”

Proponents of I-522 funded by organic food firms have cited studies claiming no higher costs are likely, while opponents funded by national food and agribusiness interests cite a study claiming food costs would go up initially by about $360 a year for a family of four. The two sides are making their rival arguments in television ads as the Nov. 5 election approaches.

Although it does not state a cost impact, the report does say, “The costs of actual labeling are a tiny fraction of the costs of compliance and certification.” And it notes that the “bulk of private costs arise in segregation of products along the supply chain.”

The report also addresses some of the scientific issues surrounding genetically engineered foods.

“To date, no statistically significant, repeatable long-term adverse health effects from GM products on the domestic market have been documented in the scientific literature,” it says. “Nevertheless, continued surveillance of long-term health effects from GM foods and food from conventional breeding is warranted.”

The academy expanded on that statement in a news release, saying that the panel was not absolving genetically modified foods.

“The challenge of ‘proving safety’ as opposed to evidence of the lack of adverse effects was acknowledged by the committee,” it said.

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