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Washington state legislators heard a preview Wednesday of the genetic-engineering food fight expected to be on this fall’s ballot.

The hearing on Legislative Initiative 522, which would require companies to label foods with genetically engineered ingredients, was basically the House version of a state Senate committee hearing in February.

Many of the same people testified, including Robert Maguire, an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine who represented the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

He described legal flaws he sees in I-522 to a joint hearing of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and the Technology and Economic Development Committee.

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He said costly litigation would come from unscrupulous “bounty hunters” trying to force companies to prove that no genetically engineered ingredient is in their products, all the way up the food chain, he said.

Maguire said it’s a First Amendment issue, forcing companies to say something that he argues is not in the public interest. He cited a case in Vermont in which a milk-labeling law was struck down because the growth hormone in question showed “no health effect.”

“There’s less choice in Europe now because of their mandatory labeling system,” he said in answer to a representative’s question about countries that require labeling for GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

George Kimbrell, an attorney at the nonprofit Center for Food Safety who helped write the GMO-labeling measure, disagreed.

I-522 includes no provision for damages, he said, so “no one is going to get rich on I-522.”

Kimbrell also said the issue is “a far cry from mere consumer curiosity” that Maguire called it in the Senate and House hearings.

“The FDA [Food and Drug Administration] … takes the industry at its word that these foods are safe,” he said. “Because there’s no labeling, there’s no way of tracking whether they will cause health effects.”

The Legislature rarely passes legislative initiatives. When it does not, the measures appear on the ballot for voters to decide. Lawmakers can add their own modified version for voters to consider alongside the original, but that, too, is rare.

Voters defeated a similar measure last year in California, where proponents of labeling raised $9.2 million against $46 million from opponents, which included Monsanto, Nestlé and Hershey.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or Twitter @AllisonSeattle.

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