Jan 21, 2014 | Eat Drink Politics | Michelle Simon
Watch out, the Grocery Manufacturers Association may soon be coming to your state capital.
In secret documents that I uncovered in November, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (aka food industry lobbyists) laid out its five-point plan for opposing the labeling of foods containing genetically-modified organisms or GMOs. First on the list: “To oppose all state efforts that would impose mandatory labels” including state legislation. With more than 20 states having introduced state bills to require GMO labeling, the junk food lobby has its work cut out for it. But they’ve wasted no time as the 2014 legislative session gets underway, starting with targeting the New Hampshire capital.
The bill to require GMO labeling in New Hampshire was first introduced last winter, but was sidelined to a subcommittee for “study” and is now back on track. Groups opposed to the measure include local lobbyists such as the New Hampshire Grocers Association, but also several national players like Monsanto, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and of course, the Grocery Manufacturers Association. That explains the shady tactics starting to emerge. Last Wednesday a hearing was scheduled in the House of Representatives where industry was handing out two documents at the door:
- Collection of media quotes taken out of context, including from the New York Times and the conservative National Review. Two others were op-eds written by industry lobbyists, but you can’t tell from looking at the handout. One, from an op-ed published in the local paper was written by John Dumais. But the handout left out a tiny detail: Mr. Dumais is CEO of the New Hampshire Grocers Association, which might explain why he’s opposed to the bill. The other op-ed was penned by Mike Somers, CEO of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association. Mr. Somers’ title was also conveniently left out. Maybe that’s because it makes no sense for the restaurant industry to weigh in since they are exempt from the bill. But that didn’t stop the trade group from claiming that the “GMO labeling requirement would wreak havoc on New Hampshire restaurants.”
- A list of deceptive arguments, recycling the scaremongering that deceived voters in California and Washington State, including higher food prices, “state bureaucracy” and “burdens” on local farmers and businesses. The list of groups opposed is padded with several industries that aren’t even impacted by the bill, including: the Granite State Brewers Association, the Wine Institute, the Pet Food Institute, the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, and the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. Also on the opposed list are the Grocery Manufactures Association and the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
If you haven’t been following the battle over labeling of GMO foods then you probably never heard of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. And you may not realize just how nasty a game they play. The GMA is a powerful trade organization based in Washington D.C. that lobbies on behalf of the largest and most powerful food and beverage conglomerates including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, Kraft, and General Mills. Over the past few years, GMA has become a key player in the fight over labeling GMO foods. In California in 2012, the biotech and junk food industry combined spent more than $45 million to defeat a ballot initiative there. The opposition engaged in numerous dirty tricks including lying in the official voter guide, misrepresenting its expert’s academic affiliation, and making false deceptive arguments that were not backed up by any evidence.
Then last year in Washington State’s ballot measure fight over GMO labels, the Grocery Manufacturers Association took its shameful strategy to whole new level. Not content to just engage in unsubstantiated scare tactics to win over voters, the GMA went so far as to break the law. Just two weeks before Election Day, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit accusing GMA of violating the state’s campaign disclosure laws, alleging that the trade group secretly gathered more than $7 million from its members to oppose the GMO labeling measure, failing to disclose the actual funders to voters. (The final figure was $11 million, half the total spent to oppose the measure.) As internal documents revealed, GMA had the chutzpah to a designate a special account designed to hide corporate donations. Dubbed the “Defense of Brand Strategic Account,” by the lobbyists, millions of dollars would be budgeted for a “multi-pronged approach” to fight labeling laws in the states, including your state.
The whole idea behind a trade group like GMA is to shield members from bad PR, so popular brands like Coca-Cola and Frito-Lay can keep their noses clean. That’s why, as GMA CEO Pamela G. Bailey explained in internal memorandum, a plan to “better shield individual companies from attack” was hatched. GMA hoped to keep this all secret, but it backfired. Washington State’s Attorney General said the case represented “the largest amount of money ever concealed in an election.” But wait, there’s more. Instead of just taking its lumps for getting caught breaking the law, instead GMA is suing the state back, claiming the disclosure law is invalid, and filing a separate civil rights claim to boot. Chutzpah doesn’t even begin to describe the arrogance here.
GMO campaign leader Alexis Simpson doesn’t think New Hampshire’s representatives are very impressed by DC-based lobbyists. GMA and the Biotechnology Industry Organization co-hosted a breakfast prior to last Wednesday’s hearing, but that probably won’t sway New Hampshire pols. The state’s House has 400 representatives which makes it challenging for multi-national corporations to lobby. As Simpson explains, “This makes for a difficult environment for the GMA. We hope our Citizen Legislature will listen to the overwhelming majority of their constituents who want mandatory labeling.”
The next hearing is scheduled for this Wednesday. You can help support New Hampshire’s bill to label GMO foods by taking action at Food Democracy Now!
About the Author
Michele Simon is a public health lawyer specializing in industry marketing and lobbying tactics. She is the author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, and research and policy director at Marin Institute, an alcohol industry watchdog group. She is grateful to live in Oakland, Calif., within walking distance of a farmers market. You can follow her on Twitter.