Bowing to the threat of an attorney general’s lawsuit, the Grocery Manufacturers Association filed papers Friday identifying 34 members that contributed to its $7.2 million fund to help defeat Initiative 522 in Washington state. I-522 seeks to require packaging labels on genetically engineered foodstuffs and seeds.
But it appears a small minority of GMA members are actually lining up to give to the I-522 fight, which is a repeat of a costlier fight in California last year that drew huge donations and an apparent consumer backlash for some anti-labeling donors.
In the new filings made available Friday afternoon, GMA says three donors gave in excess of $1 million. These were PepsiCo, which gave $1,620,899, Nestle USA, Inc., which gave $1,057,743, and The Coca-Cola Co., which gave $1,047,332. All were major donors last year to the California PAC that defeated Prop. 37 (Pepsi had given $2.48 million; Coca-Cola, $1.7 million; and Nestle, $1.46 million).
There were 13 donations to Grocery Manufacturers that topped $100,000 and the identity of all 34 donors would have been secret until state Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed suit on Wednesday to force the GMA to register as a PAC and to disclose its donors.
As we reported Thursday, the more than 300-member grocery products association quickly agreed to file as a PAC and Friday’s financial filings were a follow-through on that promise to abide by state laws and cooperate fully with the state.
In a press released issued early Friday, Ferguson’s agency said the Grocery Manufacturers board voted to register as a PAC and file the reports, which in effect will close the book on his lawsuit seeking a restraining order:
The GMA board’s decision eliminates the need for the Attorney General’s Office to seek a temporary restraining order to force GMA to comply with Washington state campaign finance laws.
“The people of Washington demand transparency in elections,” Ferguson said. “I’m pleased the GMA board recognized their responsibility to disclose the names of companies who contributed to opposing Initiative 522, and the amount of their contributions.”
“In the spirit of continuing cooperation and in an effort to provide Washington voters with full transparency about GMA’s funding for the ‘No on 522’ campaign, the association has decided to voluntarily establish a Washington state political committee and to file reports with the PDC disclosing the source of all funds used in connection with Washington state elections,” said GMA.
Spokesmen for the No on 522 campaign and the grocers had tried to laugh off an earlier lawsuit filed by a Mom’s for Labeling group as frivolous and a politically motivated distraction. They insisted there was no merit in the claim the grocers should disclose donors, and a spokesman for the association said it was fully complying with state law.
But that was before Ferguson's suit, which also alleges campaign finance violations based on internal GMA memos his office obtained. The trade group based in Washington, D.C., would have violated laws by failing to register as a PAC after soliciting contributions from members.
The GMA continues to insist that it has broad support from the food industry for opposing GMO labeling on products, which it says is misleading and will drive up costs for consumers. After The Olympian contacted individual GMA members this week to ask whether they were participating in the Washington campaign or sitting it out, Nestle tipped off the association, which then put out this statement:
The Grocery Manufacturers Association had wide support from its member companies in its opposition to California’s Prop 37 ballot initiative on GMO labeling in 2012 and has wide support from its member companies in its opposition to I-522 in Washington State. Any allegations to the contrary are simply not true. I-522 is a costly and confusing proposal that will mislead consumers and raise the cost of groceries for Washington families.”
The new financial filings at the Public Disclosure Commission show that only 34 members out of the association’s more than 300 members are donating.
And formerly active members such as Mars Incorporated and Unilever are not donating to the No on 522 effort after donating heavily to the roughly $44 million effort to defeat California’s measure last year.
An Olympian analysis of data collected by the nonprofit and nonpartisan Maplight project, which tracks the influence of money in politics, shows that Unilever gave $862,416 to the PAC fighting Prop. 37 last year. But it has not given to the No on 522 committee or to the grocers PAC.
Mars Incorporated gave $497,850 to the California fight and none this year in Washington.
Spokesmen for Unilever did not reply to two phone and one email queries from a reporter. A public relations firm that handles media inquiries for Mars also declined to have the company answer direct questions from a reporter.
But Unilever's media contractor did put out a statement saying the company is no longer taking a position on GMO labeling issues, as long as they deal strictly with labels informing consumers:
“In recent years, several U.S. states have been considering the issue of GMO labeling through legislation and ballot measures, which has resulted in a variety of different approaches. As states continue to debate this issue, Mars, Incorporated will neither oppose nor fund opposition of GMO labeling proposals at the state or federal levels, where those initiatives seek only to inform consumers of whether a product contains GMOs – this specifically includes Washington State ballot measure I 552."