As voters in Washington state near an ingredient-labeling referendum that the food industry is watching closely, General Mills Inc. CEO Ken Powell used the company's shareholders' meeting on Tuesday to promote a national law instead.

"We strongly support a national, federal labeling solution," Powell said in response to a shareholder's question. However, he would support a national standard that would label foods that don't have genetically engineered ingredients in them, rather than foods that do.

His comments echo the company's long-held views, General Mills said in a statement. But they underscored a debate between food companies and activists over the labeling of genetically engineered food that appears to be coming to a head with the Washington vote Nov. 5.

One Minnesota-based activist, Ronnie Cummins, said that the outcome sought by General Mills isn't likely to happen unless voters in Washington support the labeling of foods that carry genetically engineered ingredients. He said such a victory would force more food companies to approach Congress and federal regulators for a national labeling alternative.

"It will take a big win in Washington," said Cummins, who leads Finland, Minn.-based Organic Consumers Association.

Surveys by Seattle-based Elway Research have found that two out of three Washington voters support the labeling idea.

Most of the corn, soybeans and sugar beets — common ingredients in packaged food — are grown from genetically engineered seed. Federal food-safety regulators don't require special labels for them.

Plenty of research has documented the safety of genetically engineered ingredients, and food-industry executives worry that labeling them would needlessly scare people. In his remarks to shareholders Tuesday, Powell said, "We use these [genetically modified ingredients] because they are safe."

But opponents say the long-term effects of genetically engineered ingredients are unknown and consumers have a right to know if their food contains the stuff. Labels would serve that purpose, they say.

Food companies say that state-tailored labels are expensive and inherently inefficient. Producers and retailers rely on uniform packaging since food products routinely cross state lines.

Last fall, California voters narrowly defeated a referendum to require such labels. The biotech and food industry spent more than $40 million — at least four times more than proponents spent — to defeat the measure. General Mills was the largest Minnesota contributor to the anti-labeling cause, spending about $1 million.

Bills in Congress to create labels for genetically engineered ingredients have languished for years. Since the California referendum, which led to a media spotlight on the issue, food companies reportedly have talked among themselves about a national labeling program.

Whole Foods announced it would require labeling of genetically engineered ingredients for products in its stores by 2018. But there have been divided signals elsewhere in the industry. Cummins said food companies have put out an "ambiguous" message.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003