Look Who's Accused of Secretly Paying To Prevent Labels on GMO Food

Washington State's attorney general is fighting a flood of anonymous political money.

(Jim Young/Reuters)

Oct 17, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

GMO labeling hasn't exactly been embraced by major food corporations. Companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills and Kellogg’s have thrown down plenty of cash to defeat various initiatives across the country, and the story isn't any different in Washington state, where a new push to label GMO foods has been gaining momentum.

The rub? You wouldn't know it.

The major brands have been accused of hiding behind a trade association to lobby against the effort in an attempt to avoid customer backlash and a public relations nightmare.

Washington state's Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit yesterday claiming the Grocery Manufacturers Association—which represents more than 300 household brands—has violated campaign disclosure laws. The group is accused of failing to form a political committee registered with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission after it solicited and collected nearly $13.5 million in contributions, spending $7.2 in efforts to a defeat ballot measure I-522, which would require genetically modified foods to be labeled.

The state's lawsuit also alleges the GMA purposely concealed the names of companies who contributed those funds to shield them from public backlash.

Ferguson’s office says they are prepared to seek a temporary restraining order to force immediate compliance with state disclosure laws.

The urgency is warranted. Washington is a mail-in vote only state. Ballots drop tomorrow and voters can send in their ballots until November 5.

“It’s clear the GMA broke Washington-state campaign finance laws,” says Elizabeth Larter, "Yes on 522" spokesperson. “The attorney general has asked GMA to disclose donors right away. We’re asking that their ads come down until they disclose to Washingtonians who is funding the 'No on 522' Campaign.”

The GMA’s response to the lawsuit is coy: “GMA takes great care to understand and comply with all state election and campaign finance laws and is surprised to learn that the Washington State authorities viewed the association’s actions as improper."

They shouldn't have been surprised. A similar lawsuit filed by Moms for Labeling against the GMA was dismissed earlier this month after Thurston County Judge Chris Wickham ruled the group violated state filing procedures.

The lawsuit reveals juicy details of the GMA strategy to defeat future GMO labeling efforts.

It was mere weeks after the defeat of California’s Prop. 37 ballot measure requiring the labeling of food products that contained genetically modified ingredients that the trade group huddled to develop short- and long-term strategies for state labeling fights that lay ahead, according to the suit. The Center for Food Safety says GMO legislation is currently pending in 18 states.

One of those strategies was to develop what GMA’s Chief Executive Officer Pamela G. Bailey called the “Defense of Brand Strategic Account.” According to a memo secured by Ferguson’s office, that separate GMA fund would “better shield individual companies from attack.”

“The fund would allow GMA to be identified as the source of funding for efforts that included defeating Initiative 522,” says Ferguson. In effect, protecting the brand names (and the reputations) of the companies interested in keeping labels off their products.

Afterall, they’re not dummies. Brands from Cheerios to Kashi to Smucker’s took a painful public relations hit after consumers discovered some of their favorite products contributed $44 million towards defeating California’s labeling efforts. Funneling that money through their association would seem like an infinitely better plan—one that now may have backfired.

Anti-labeling funds collected from GMA members would be separate from normal association dues. GMA's considerable slush fund would then be used to fight labeling efforts for three years, from 2013 to 2015, according to the AG’s complaint.

The trade association's repeated requests for political contributions were sent to the food industry's major players in March and August. The first checks were due by April 15 and by May 8. "No on 522"—the only registered political committee opposed to 522—received a contribution of $472,500 from the GMA.

In mid-August, another invoice was sent to members, and approximately 10 days later, the GMA contributed another $1.75 million to the "No on 522" campaign. Approximately a month after that, a whopping $5 million more was donated by GMA.

TakePart did not receive a response from "No on 522" after requesting an interview this morning.

We think it's also worth noting: The "No on 522" campaign has set a record for the most money raised opposing a ballot initiative set to go before Washington voters. In addition to the GMA's $7.2 million contribution, the group racked up another $10 million in donations.

“Truly fair elections demand all sides follow the rules by disclosing who their donors are and how much they are spending to advocate their views,” said Ferguson.

We couldn’t agree more.