By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Opponents of a Washington state ballot measure that would have required labeling of foods containing genetically modified crops declared victory on Tuesday, citing early voting results.
The measure, known as I-522, appeared headed for defeat, 45 percent in favor to 55 percent opposed, with more than 980,000 ballots counted on Tuesday evening, according to the Washington state Secretary of State.
The outcome of the Washington vote was being closely watched around the country as more than two dozen U.S. states and the federal government wrestle with whether to require labeling.
"This is a clear victory for Washington consumers, taxpayers and family farmers across our state," Dana Bieber, spokeswoman for No on 522, said in a statement Tuesday evening. "Washington voters have soundly rejected this badly written and deceptive initiative."
The measure, which would have been the first of its kind in the United States, required labeling of foods that are made with genetically altered crops as well as labeling of genetically engineered seeds and seed products sold in the state.
Supporters of the measure, who say it would help consumers make informed shopping choices, had not conceded on Tuesday, pointing to ballots unaccounted for through the vote-by-mail system in the Pacific Northwest state.
"We don't have a final tally of the votes tonight," said Delana Jones, campaign manager for Yes on 522. "We'll have regular evening updates as counties report voting results."
Many foods are made with crops that have been genetically altered. Corn and soy, two top biotech crops, are key ingredients in processed foods from cereal to chips to cookies.
Despite early strong support for I-522, polling suggested sentiment against the measure was growing due to an onslaught of corporate-financed advertising before the referendum.
In September, one poll showed support for labeling led opposition by 45 percentage points. But a survey released on October 21 by The Elway Poll, a regional non-partisan public opinion research group, showed support leading by four points.
A consortium that includes General Mills, Nestle USA, PepsiCo, Monsanto,, DuPont and other corporate giants, were key contributors to the roughly $22 million raised to campaign against the bill, much of that spent by November 5, according to Washington Public Disclosure Commission figures on Tuesday.
That far outstrips the roughly $7.9 million raised by supporters of the labeling initiative, according to the Commission.
The companies say gene modified crops help farmers to be more productive, and they say hundreds of studies show the foods from these crops are safe.
But critics say there are hundreds of studies showing that GMO crops are not safe for people and the animals who consume them. They also say the crops create environmental problems by encouraging more use of certain agrochemicals, and consumers should have the right to know what they are buying.
A similar labeling measure narrowly failed in the 2012 election in California by a vote of 51.4 percent against to 48.6 percent in favor.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Elizabeth Piper)