Companies that donated to defeat labeling in California sat out I-522

This article was originally published in December 2013

Adapted from an article by Brad Shannon, “Not all California players join I-522 row in Washington,” published in The News Tribune.

Almost 30 companies that gave $10,000 or more to defeat California’s Prop 37 in 2012 did not contribute to I-522 in 2013.

Fewer U.S. food companies are willing to fund the fight against labeling genetically engineered foods. Several large companies that helped defeat California’s labeling initiative in 2012 chose to sit out the I-522 campaign without donating a dollar.

Unilever, for instance, gave $467,100 to fight labeling in California but did not contribute to Washington’s No on 522 campaign. Unilever owns numerous brands, including Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, which supported I-522 very publicly.

Other food companies that made substantial contributions in California but not Washington include Kraft, Mars, Dole and Tree Top. Mars spokesmen said the candy company will not participate in further GE labeling fights around 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 made prior to the November election.

Despite losing some big donors, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) was the single biggest contributor to No on 522, collecting $11 million from members. Coke, Pepsi and Nestlé each gave more than $1 million. Other major donors to the No campaign include Monsanto (almost $5.4 million), DuPont Pioneer (about $3.9 million), Bayer (about $1 million) and Dow (almost $600,000).

A losing battle

The Grocery Manufacturers Association issued a statement saying it had “wide support from its member companies in its opposition to I-522…” But according to the national labeling group, Just Label It, almost 30 companies that gave $10,000 or more to defeat California’s Prop 37 in 2012 did not contribute to I-522 in 2013.

One reason companies may have chosen not to contribute to defeat labeling is they “concluded the fight is worse than the label — the loss of brand (reputation) and consumer loyalty,” Scott Faber, a former vice president for GMA, told The News Tribune. “A number have concluded this is a fight that can’t be won in the long run.”

Another factor is the pressure put on large companies that have natural product lines. The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) had called for boycotts against companies such as Unilever, Kraft and Nestlé USA. OCA lifted its boycott of Ben & Jerry’s (and Unilever) once the GMA disclosed neither Ben & Jerry’s nor Unilever contributed to the No on 522 campaign.

“From our end, there was no pressure,” says Sean Greenwood of Ben & Jerry’s. “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.”

Reputations on the line

Being associated with anti-labeling efforts is a concern for the food industry. Memos uncovered by Attorney General Bob Ferguson in his lawsuit alleging campaign finance violations by GMA reveal an effort to provide “cover” and brand image protection to member companies. The documents, obtained by The Olympian through a public records request, detail the GMA’s strategy.

The GMA’s Defense of Brands account was established to collect a special assessment from members to fund the defeat of I-522. Nestlé, one of the biggest contributors, gave more than $1.5 million. The memos show the account would allow GMA “to become the ‘funder’ of campaign-related efforts instead of individual companies (as was the case in California).”

Washington’s Attorney General is suing the GMA for creating the illegal slush fund and deliberately hiding donor company names, a violation of campaign finance laws.

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