Washington state sues junk food lobby over GMO labeling bill

NestleUSA, Pepsico, Coca-Cola, and General Mills among those implicated Photo: Alexis Baden-Mayer, Flickr

WASHINGTON, October 28, 2013—Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed suit against the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) earlier this month, alleging the junk food lobby violated campaign disclosure laws in its attempt to block GMO labeling legislation in the state. 

The complaint alleges that GMA collected and spent over $7 million in its efforts against Washington’s Initiative 522 while at the same time failing to disclose the identity of its contributors. Several reports allege that NestleUSA, General Mills, Coca-Cola, and Pepsico were the main sources of the money.

SEE RELATED: The battle over GMO seed farms in Hawaii

“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,” Ferguson said in a statement.

Initiative 522 is a statewide ballot measure that would require that all genetically modified (GMO) food products, seeds and seed stocks sold in Washington state be labeled. State residents are already weighing in by mail-in ballot, and the final vote will take place November 5. 

The “No on 522” campaign, seeking the defeat of the ballot initiative, has been largely funded by biotech companies and the GMA, a trade group representing over 300 food and beverage companies. GMA is No on 522’s largest donor.   

This same coalition banded together to raise over $46 million to defeat a similar law in California last year, according to the Huffington Post.

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In stark contrast to Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, BASF, and Dow, which have openly opposed the labeling initiative and revealed how much they have donated to No on 522—Monsanto alone donated over $4 million—junk food companies have been unwilling to contribute openly to what has become a $17 million campaign in Washington.

According to the complaint, in clear violation of campaign disclosure laws, GMA executives held secret meetings to create a scheme whereby the identity of donors of over $7 million to the anti-labeling campaign would be hidden from Washington state voters.

Under the direction of GMA’s CEO, Pamela Bailed, junk food companies donated to a fund—the “Defense of Brand Strategic Account”—that was created by GMA to hide their identity. The complaint alleges that GMA then donated money taken from the fund to the No on 522 campaign without disclosing “the true source of the contributions received and made by Defendant GMA.”

Washington Attorney General Ferguson alleges in a statement that the GMA should have formed a separate political committee, registered with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission, and filed reports indicating how much money was spent on opposing Initiative 522, who contributed, and how much.

SEE RELATED: Frankenfoods: The debate over genetically modified (GM) foods

GMA answered news of the lawsuit with surprise.

“GMA takes great care to understand and comply with all state election and campaign finance laws,” a spokesperson for GMA told Reuters. “GMA will review its actions in Washington state and relevant statutes and continue to cooperate with state authorities to fully resolve the issue as promptly as possible.”

Supporters of the labeling initiative are clearly being outspent by opponents, and opponent money is coming largely from out of state. Supporters, the “yes on 522” campaign, have raised about $5.5 million and spent $5.4 million; opponents have raised $ 17 million and spent $13 million. 

“It’s clear that they broke the law,” Elizabeth Larter, spokeswoman for the Yes campaign told Reuters. “They don’t want to tell us who is funding the No on 522 campaign just like they don’t want Washington consumers to know what is in their food.”


READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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