By Eric M. Johnson and Carey Gillam
SEATTLE/KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Major U.S. food and chemical companies are pouring millions of dollars into efforts to block approval of a ballot initiative in Washington state that would make it the first in the United States to require labeling of foods containing genetically modified crops.
Despite early strong support for the measure, a recent poll suggests sentiment against the measure, known as I-522, is growing amid an onslaught of corporate-financed advertising ahead of the November 5 referendum. Voters will decide whether many common grocery items containing ingredients from genetically altered crops should be labeled as such.
Supporters say labeling foods made from genetically modified organisms (GMO) would provide information for consumers to make informed shopping choices. Food and chemical companies say the wording would suggest something is wrong with gene modified ingredients that the companies believe are safe.
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.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which represents more than 300 food and beverage companies, has put roughly $11 million into fighting the measure, or roughly half of the nearly $22 million raised by opponents of labeling, according to Washington Public Disclosure Commission figures as of Tuesday.
That far outstrips the roughly $6.8 million raised by supporters of the labeling initiative, according to the Commission.
"They are making this the most expensive race and are desperately adding last-minute money to try and buy this election," said Liz Larter, spokeswoman for "Yes on 522" campaign, a reference to the ballot measure's number.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, said in a lawsuit filed October 16 that the grocery group illegally collected and spent more than $7 million while shielding the identity of its contributors.
But the GMA and other opponents say they have corrected any finance filing irregularities and they are trying to turn back a measure that would confuse consumers and have numerous consequences.
"It would require tens of thousands of common food and beverage products to be relabeled exclusively for Washington state unless they are remade with higher-priced, specially developed ingredients," said Brian Kennedy, GMA spokesman. "The measure will increase grocery costs for a typical Washington family by hundreds of dollars per year."
The outcome of the Washington vote will be closely watched around the country as more than two dozen U.S. states and the federal government wrestle with whether to require labeling.
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.
A consortium that includes General Mills, Nestle USA, PepsiCo, Monsanto,, DuPont and other corporate giants, are the key contributors to the nearly $22 million raised to campaign against the bill.
Monsanto, the world's largest seed company and top developer of biotech crops, has put in nearly $5.4 million to fight the labeling measure, including $540,000 added on Monday.
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 only four points.
Forty-six percent of a sample of 413 registered voters in Washington reported that they were inclined to vote for the labeling law, while 42 percent said they were inclined to vote against it. The margin of error was 5 percent.
The companies say gene modified crops help farmers 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.
David Bronner, president of Escondido, Calif.-based Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps and a supporter of labeling, said the ballot initiative may lose in Washington state, but he sees eventual victory in some state or on a federal level.
The soap company is the chief financial backer for the pro-labeling campaign, contributing more than $1.7 million. It makes an array of cleanser and lotion products it markets as organic.
"We're in this for a long haul," Bronner said. "Even if we lose here we're still feeding the national debate and conversation. We'll get it eventually."
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson and Carey Gillam; Editing by Greg McCune and Ken Wills)