Not all California players join I-522 battle

‘Arm-twisting,’ image might be reasons donors from California fight aren’t among opponents of labeling here

bshannon@theolympian.comNovember 2, 2013 

Even as opponents of Initiative 522 break fundraising records, a few large U.S. companies that spent money last year to fight mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods in California have been sitting out this year’s fight in Washington.

Their absence hasn’t crimped the No on 522 committee’s ability to fund a barrage of television ads that criticize the initiative, saying it is costly for consumers, is confusing and won’t provide meaningful information.

Opponents of labeling have collected $22 million and reported spending more than $20 million, making their PAC the most prolific fundraiser in any Washington state initiative campaign.

Proponents have raised more than $7.8 million for Yes on 522. Other committees also have raised money in favor.

But prominent companies are stepping back from the fight against labeling – for reasons that appear to vary. Among them are Unilever, a global company that owns Ben & Jerry’s ice cream line. Unilever gave $467,100 to anti-labeling forces in California last year.

Others that gave in California but not Washington are Kraft Foods and Mars Inc., as well as Dole Packaged Foods and Tree Top Inc. Kraft contributed more than $2 million to the campaign to defeat California’s Proposition 37, while Mars gave $498,350.

Mars spokesmen recently said the candy-bar company is sitting out all GMO fights across the country.

“As states continue to debate this issue, Mars Inc. 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 (the) Washington state ballot measure,” the company said in a statement last month issued in response to a reporter’s inquiry.

Despite losing some big donors for the anti-labeling cause, the Grocery Manufacturers Association is the single biggest contributor to No on 522 with $11 million collected from its members. Other major donors to No on 522 include biotech and agribusiness firms such as Monsanto, which contributed almost $5.4 million, and DuPont Pioneer with $3.4 million.

“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,” the association said in a statement. “Any allegations to the contrary are simply not true.”

But Scott Faber, a spokesman for the pro-labeling Environmental Working Group, or EWG, who says he once worked for GMA, says it’s no coincidence that “a number of companies that funded anti-labeling initiatives last year are not funding anti-labeling initiatives this year.”

Faber pointed to a comparison of donors for the California and Washington campaigns compiled by the Just Label It advocacy group, which EWG manages. It shows almost 30 companies that gave $10,000 or more last year have not contributed this year.

“Clearly there is a number of factors driving the decision-making. One is, they concluded the fight is worse than the label – the loss of brand (reputation) and consumer loyalty,” Faber said. “A number have concluded this is a fight that can’t be won in the long run.”

Another factor is the diverse product lineups many large companies manage. Advocates at the Organic Consumers Association in Minnesota have been running boycotts against companies such as Unilever and Kraft that have natural food lines, and in the case of Nestle USA, it has gone after the organic Gerber line of baby foods to apply pressure to the parent company.

OCA spokeswoman Katherine Paul said her group, which contributed about $780,000 to Yes on 522, pressured Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in the same way.

She said the goal was to persuade Unilever not to donate to the Washington fight against labeling. Organic Consumers lifted its boycott of Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever once Grocery Manufacturers disclosed its list of donors last month in response to a lawsuit by the Washington attorney general, Paul said. From that list, it was clear neither of the companies was contributing this year.

“We had many conversations with Ben & Jerry’s, and in one of those, I was told that they had secured a promise from Unilever that it would not donate to the NO on I-522 campaign,” Paul said in an email. “We couldn’t be sure of this until the (donor) list was published … because we knew the food companies were hiding donations behind the GMA.”

A spokesman for Unilever said last week it had no comment. But Sean Greenwood of Ben & Jerry’s said there was no arm twisting.

“From our end, there was no pressure. We’ve continued an ongoing dialogue (with Unilever) in regards to what position we felt we needed to take around GMO labeling. We feel respected and supported by Unilever to be the progressive business that we are at Ben & Jerry’s,” Greenwood said.

Spokesmen for Ben & Jerry’s, which is advocating for I-522, say the firm is trying to phase out GMO ingredients in its U.S. products by the end of the year.

Whether consumer advocates are having an effect on other companies is hard to gauge. Nestle did not reply to The Olympian’s queries about the targeting of Gerber. Neither did Kraft nor other large firms.

But being associated with anti-labeling efforts is clearly a concern for the food industry. Memos uncovered by Attorney General Bob Ferguson in his lawsuit alleging campaign finance violations by Grocery Manufacturers reveal an effort to provide cover to member companies.

The documents, obtained by The Olympian through a public records request, detail the strategy behind the trade group’s Defense of Brands account, which was established earlier this year to collect a special assessment from members that would fund the effort to defeat I-522. Nestle was one of the biggest contributors, of more than $1.5 million.

“The creation of this fund will allow for greater planning for the funds required to combat current threats and better shield individual companies from attack that provide funding for specific efforts,” GMA chief executive Pamela Bailey said in a Feb. 18 memo to the association’s board of directors. “Specifically, by creating this fund and using the funds for multiple purposes, GMA would become the ‘funder’ of campaign-related efforts instead of individual companies (as was the case in California).”

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com theolympian.com/politicsblog

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