Washington voters Tuesday were rejecting a measure that would have made the state the first in the nation to require labeling of genetically engineered foods.
The measure trailed 45 to 55 percent — a margin that appeared impossible to overcome.
It was a stunning reversal for an initiative that two-thirds of voters supported in early polls.
But opponents, backed by Monsanto and other large agribusinesses, outspent proponents by a ratio of nearly 3-to-1, making the initiative campaign one of the costliest in state history.
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A blitz of critical ads appeared to change voters’ minds.
“The facts show that I-522 was a badly written initiative that deserved to be voted down,” said Dana Bieber, spokeswoman for the No on I-522 campaign. “We knew from the beginning that the more voters knew about Initiative 522, the less they’re going to like it.”
Pro-Initiative 522 campaign manager Delana Jones was not ready to concede, pointing out that as many as 300,000 projected ballots remained to be counted in King County, where the measure was winning handily. “It’s too close to call,” she said.
“Win or lose, this is a long war,” said David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, the initiative’s biggest donor. “Labeling is inevitable.”
The measure led in only three counties in addition to King — Whatcom, Jefferson and San Juan.
Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee and a co-chair of the “Yes” campaign, said an upside of the election is that now 90 percent of Washington residents know what genetically engineered foods are. “The movement continues,” he said.
Supporters argued that consumers have a right to know what’s in their food.
Opponents called the labeling plan flawed and misleading and said it would only scare consumers away from a promising technology.
The initiative campaign put Washington at center stage in debates over both genetic engineering and the role of out-of-state funding in elections.
With $22 million in donations, the “No” campaign set a record for fundraising by one side in an initiative battle in Washington. Only $550 of that total came from state residents. The biggest donors included the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and Bayer CropScience, all heavily invested in genetically engineered crops.
Almost 70 percent of the funding for the “Yes” campaign came from out-of-state businesses and organizations, led by California-based Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps and the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. But supporters also included about 10,000 individuals, many of them Washington residents, who gave amounts ranging from $2 to $20,000.
The approximately $30 million raised by both sides made the race the second-highest spending initiative in Washington history, after the 2011 liquor-privatization measure and its $32.5 million in donations.
The measure would have mandated labels on the front of food packaging. Genetically engineered produce and meat from genetically engineered animals and fish also would have been labeled.
Similar laws were passed recently in Maine and Connecticut, but won’t go into effect unless neighboring states opt in.
A measure nearly identical to Washington’s was defeated in California last year, after the same alliance of food-industry giants outspent labeling proponents by a ratio of nearly 5-to-1.
The issue isn’t likely to die soon. Groups opposed to genetic engineering are already planning a 2014 initiative in Oregon.
Seattle Times reporters Alisa Reznick, Jack Broom and Erika Schultz contributed to this report.