After Narrow GMO Labeling Defeat in Washington State, What’s Next?

After all the votes were counted, the Yes on 522 campaign in Washington State to label genetically engineered foods acceded defeat in mid-November by a margin of 48.9% to 51.1%, recalling the narrow defeat in 2012 of Proposition 37 to label GMO foods in California. The anti-GMO labeling side won by a slim 2% of the vote, but they won dirty. Proponents of GMO labeling knew they would be outspent, but they did not count on the fact that the No on 522 side would resort to illegal tactics to win the election, as alleged in an ongoing lawsuit filed by Washington’s Attorney General against a major food industry lobby group for concealing corporate contributions to the campaign, thus violating the state’s campaign finance disclosure laws (see below).

In all, 1.75 million people voted, comprising 45% of Washington’s electorate, the lowest statewide turnout in a decade, with some analysts citing a stronger turnout by more conservative, rural voters along with a poor turnout among younger, progressive voters, with some critics claiming the Yes on 522 campaign didn’t do enough to reach out to rural voters. Or, according to Grist writer Nathanael Johnson, “The Washington vote seems to be telling us that concern about GM food is broad and shallow. That is, lots of people are vaguely worried about transgenics, but it’s not a core issue that drives majorities to the polls.”

Still, said Johnson, the actual amount of money spent on advertising made “all the difference” in turning around polls indicating that Washington voters strongly favored GMO labeling going into the election. Blitzing voters with television advertising and direct mail, and dominating the airwaves in an off-election year with claims that voters didn’t need a confusing labeling law that would cost them more at the grocery store, the anti-GMO labeling lobby outspent the Yes on 522 side more than three to one, or $22 million vs. $8 million – a record for the state in overall campaign spending.

The No on 522 campaign to defeat the GMO labeling bill was supported with multi-million-dollar contributions from just a handful of multinational pesticide/biotech seed companies that donated directly to the No campaign, including Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, BASF and Bayer – and a number of food corporations that until late October remained hidden under the guise of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a Washington, DC-based industry lobby group.

"Defense of Brands" Scheme Backfires on GMA; Trade Group Faces AG Lawsuit In addition to the $11 million supplied by biotech to defeat the GMO labeling bill, more than three dozen mainstream food corporations – led by Nestle, Pepsico, Coca Cola, General Mills, McCormick, J.M. Smucker, ConAgra and others that purvey GMO foods without labels – matched biotech’s contributions to kill the labeling bill with nearly $11 million of their own.

Except…fearing the consumer backlash, brand tarnishing and PR disaster that many of these companies experienced when they were identified as contributors to defeat Prop 37 in California, they are alleged to have conspired to conceal their donations to the No on 522 campaign through an illegal slush fund, the “Defense of Brands” fund, secretly established n early 2013 by the GMA specifically to hide the names of the corporate campaign contributors from the public.

According to a lawsuit filed on October 16 by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, the GMA pumped $10.6 million into defeating the I-522 GMO labeling bill without first registering a political action committee, in violation of the state’s campaign finance transparency laws. Two days after the lawsuit was filed, the GMA registered a committee and finally disclosed the donors behind $7.2 million it had received from large food manufacturers.

However, the lawsuit is ongoing: in an amended lawsuit filed on November 20, Ferguson alleges that the GMA continues to violate the state’s campaign finance laws by not disclosing an additional $3.4 million in concealed contributions.

But the junk food industry’s game plan goes further, and that is to stop the state level GMO labeling movements “at any cost,” said public health attorney Michele Simon. In reviewing internal documents obtained as a result of the Attorney General’s lawsuit, Simon reported that the mainstream food industry's “ultimate game plan to stop the bleeding in the state-by-state onslaught of GMO labeling efforts is to lobby for a weak federal law that simultaneously preempts or trumps any state-level policy. Rather than a federal compromise, where industry would agree to a weak form of labeling in exchange for stripping state authority, what industry wants instead is to stop state laws to require labeling, while not giving up anything in return,” Simon wrote.

“In their own words, the game plan is to ‘pursue statutory federal preemption which does not include a labeling requirement.’ Let me repeat that,” Simons said: “The junk food lobby's ‘federal solution’ is to make it illegal for states to pass laws requiring GMO labeling. Period. End of story.”

Some good news is that not all major food companies are on board with this plan, and at least 30 companies that contributed to defeat Prop. 37 in California stayed out of the I-522 fight in Washington State, reported Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association. “Some major food companies, including Unilever and Mars, bruised by bad publicity and consumer boycotts, have broken ranks with the GMA and the biotech industry, arguing that GMO food labels are inevitable and must be accepted, just as they’ve had to accept them in Europe and dozens of other countries,” Cummins said. GMO foods are required to be labeled in 64 countries, but not in the United States. In fact, in a 180-degree shift, Unilever, via its Ben & Jerry’s brand, was demonstrably active in promoting the Yes on 522 campaign to label GMO foods.

What’s Next: Oregon in 2014? Washington in 2016? Mandatory Federal Labeling? Yes on 522 campaign organizers, while disappointed in the narrow loss, vowed in a statement, “While it is unfortunate I-522 did not pass, it has set the stage for victory in 2016.” Trudy Bialic, director of public affairs for natural foods retailer PCC in Seattle and co-chair of the Yes on 522 campaign, said the voter turnout “was the lowest ever recorded, skewing older and more conservative, and away from younger, more progressive voters driving the GE labeling movement. We are disappointed with the results, but the polling is clear that Washingtonians support labeling and believe they have a right to know. This fight isn’t over. We will be back in 2016 to challenge and defeat the out-of-state corporations standing in the way of our right to know.”

Currently, GMO labeling language is being prepared and filed in Oregon and Colorado for 2014 ballot initiatives, according to Denver-based political consultant Rick Ridder and David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s, a leading supporter of the Yes on 522 campaign and GMO labeling. Local legislatures in Hawaii have recently passed laws requiring biotech companies to reveal what GMO crops and pesticides they are applying to experimental fields. In Vermont, labeling legislation is still active and pro-GMO labeling supporters are not shying away from scientific research that demonstrates that there are, indeed, clear and present risks to human, animal an environmental health associated with genetically engineered food and agriculture.

On the federal front, the Senator Barbara Boxer’s (D-CA) and Congressman Peter DeFazio’s (D-OR) bill to label GMO foods, introduced in April 2013, is still pending. However, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in mid-November announced that she was joining 13 other senators as a co-sponsor of Senator Boxer’s Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act.

Just Label executive director Scott Faber said, “We welcome the opportunity to work with food industry leaders and the FDA to devise a federal mandatory labeling system that alerts consumers to the presence of GE ingredients in their food.” However, Faber added, “The results in Washington State do not change the fundamental fact that consumers deserve the right to know about the presence of GE ingredients in their food. Just Label It will continue to fight to give American consumers the same rights as consumers in 64 other nations via a federal solution requiring mandatory labeling, while at the same time continuing to work with state legislators to give this basic right to consumers.

This article appeared in the November 2013 Presence News, a leading natural and organic products industry newsletter published by Presence Marketing/Dynamic Presence.