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Food Companies Seek Federal GMO Labeling Standard, Challenge Washington's Campaign Finance Laws

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) — which represents food-industry giants including Coca-Cola, MARS, Kellogg, P&G, McDonald’s, Mondelez International, Starbucks, Hershey, General Mills and roughly 300 others — announced this week that it will petition to the chief U.S. food safety regulator and Congress to enact a single federal standard for the labeling of genetically modified (GMO) foods.

The petition is apparently in response to a lawsuit filed against the GMA in October by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. The suit alleged that the GMA violated Washington’s campaign finance disclosure laws when it collected roughly $10.6 million from its members, placed the funds in a special “Defense of Brand” account and used them to oppose Initiative 522 — Washington’s November ballot initiative that would have required mandatory labeling of GMO foods, seeds and seed products in this state, had it passed. The GMA was the largest single donor to the No on 522 campaign.

Washington law dictates that the GMA should have first formed a political committee, registered it in Washington and followed Washington campaign finance disclosure requirements before contributing to the No on 522 campaign.

On Jan. 3, the GMA answered the complaint with a counterclaim and also filed a separate civil rights complaint against Ferguson, claiming the Attorney General is unconstitutionally enforcing Washington’s laws and challenging the constitutionality of requiring the GMA to register a political committee before requesting and receiving contributions to oppose Initiative 522.

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Ferguson responded to the news about GMA’s decision to lobby the federal government by asserting that he would vigorously defend the constitutionality and enforcement of Washington’s campaign finance disclosure laws.

“After breaking our state’s campaign finance disclosure laws, the GMA now seeks to have them declared unconstitutional,” Ferguson said. “I look forward to defending transparency in Washington elections.”

In memos obtained by the Attorney General’s Office, the GMA described efforts to develop “a funding mechanism to address the GMO issue” while “better shielding companies from attack for providing funding.”

The $10.6 million originally concealed by the GMA makes this the largest campaign finance disclosure case in state history.

In the weeks leading up to the vote on I-522 in November, shareholder-advocacy groups As You Sow, the Green Century Equity Fund, the Environmental Working Group, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group filed resolutions asking the top corporate donors to the opposition of California’s failed 2012 GMO labeling ballot initiative (Prop 37) to refrain from using corporate funds to influence political elections. All but three of the 37 companies petitioned by the groups — Sara Lee, Grupo Bimbo and H.J. Heinz — are also members of the GMA.

While the battle to mandate GMO labelling continues to rage in various states — with new legislation passed just last week in Maine — U.S. consumers continue to express their distaste for the idea of having them in their food and insist on their right to know either way. GMA member General Mills made history earlier this month by committing to produce its original Cheerios without GMOs; the decision came after the GMO Inside campaign rallied 40,000 consumers to urge the company via its Facebook page to make Cheerios non-GMO.


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