Big Food Accused of ‘Elaborate Scheme’ to Kill GMO Labeling Effort

February 21, 2016, 10:00 PM UTC
Inside A Kroger Co. Store Ahead of Earning Figures
An employee stocks organic breakfast cereal at a Kroger Co. store in Peoria, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, June 16, 2015. Kroger Co. is expected to release quarterly earnings on June 18. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Daniel Acker — Bloomberg via Getty Images

The nation’s largest food companies are under criticism for using too much sugar, too few healthy ingredients and failing to be transparent about what’s in their products. At least some of those concerns now seem to be playing out in a fight over how America’s largest food industry group financed a campaign against a food labeling initiative.

The state of Washington’s attorney general is seeking $14 million from the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), alleging the GMA created an “elaborate scheme” to secretly fund a multimillion dollar campaign to kill a food labeling initiative.

Since 2013, Washington’s attorney general Bob Ferguson has alleged that the GMA illegally tried to hide the names of its donors to a campaign to kill state Initiative 522, which would have required food labels for genetically modified ingredients. It was narrowly defeated. The GMA says it broke no laws. “Washington law treats trade associations contributing their own funds as single entities for disclosure purposes,” it says.

Late last week, documents were unsealed from the ongoing litigation, which reveal the planning behind, and the contributors to, the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s (GMA) “No on 522” campaign. Under intense pressure, the GMA did reveal the donors and contribution amounts just weeks before the 2013 vote, but the move — which got little publicity at the time — did not satisfy attorney general Bob Ferguson.

According to the newly released documents, the top ten donors and their contributions are:

PepsiCo (PEP): $1.7 million,

Nestlé USA (NESTLE-S-A): $1.1 million

General Mills (GIS): $646,000

Coca-Cola (KO): $565,000

ConAgra (CAG): $308,000

Campbell Soup (CPB): $286,000

The Hershey Company (HSYFB): $268,000

J.M. Smucker (SJM): $260,000

Kellogg (K): $239,000

and Mondelez (MDLZ): $156,000

An attempt to shield identities

At issue is an $11 million fund that the GMA established in 2013. Called the “Defense of Brands” fund, it was earmarked for specific lobbying and education efforts surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs), including the fight to defeat the Washington initiative. Member companies made contributions proportional to their sales.

GMA said the purpose of the fund was two-fold, according to the released internal GMA documents. It was designed to “provide greater budgeting certainty to the companies while also shield[ing] individual companies from public disclosure and possible criticism.” The GMA said in these documents that the contributors would be shielded because only the GMA would be disclosed as a donor to the Washington effort.

The attorney general sees this differently, describing this plan as “an elaborate scheme to unlawfully shield its members’ contributions from public scrutiny.”

The GMA says its actions were legal. The group has filed a motion for summary judgment, asking that the lawsuit be dismissed.

Late last year, the GMA announced a national labeling initiative to provide consumers with “instantaneous access” to detailed information on thousands of products through their smart phones. The so-called SmartLabel will include ingredients, allergens, animal welfare, environmental policies, and whether the food contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

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