You may not have heard about this court case, but it’s another black eye for the food industry.
In Washington state last week, a judge in Thurston County south of Seattle ruled that the Grocery Manufacturers Association violated the state’s campaign finance disclosure laws in 2013 during a contentious fight over Initiative 522, a ballot initiative to impose mandatory GMO labeling.
According to The Olympian newspaper, Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch ruled that the case must go to trial to determine what fine the group will pay for shielding the identity of major corporate donors to their campaign. The amount of the fine would depends on whether prosecutors can prove that the violation was intentional.
In her decision, which was made public on Friday, Hirsch said the food-industry group violated both the spirit and the letter of Washington’s Public Campaign Finance Laws, which states that the penalty can equal the amount the guilty party failed to report.
If the court finds that the violation was intentional, the penalty could be tripled, according to a statement from the office of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
The ruling indicated that GMA did not register as a political action committee and did not disclose the food and beverage companies that contributed some $11 million to the association’s campaign to defeat the GMO labeling initiative.
In her opinion, the judge wrote that, “The undisputed evidence … shows that the GMA’s intent was to create a plan to provide anonymity and eliminate state filing requirements for contributing members,” which would also shield the companies from potential public backlash.
Robert Lowe, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, noted that the judge’s ruling stated the organization believed its conduct was appropriate under state law.
“In the upcoming trial, we believe the facts will show that GMA always intended to comply with the law," Lowe said in a statement.
That “defense” is meaningless, at least in the court of public opinion, that’s what really matters
Bigger’s not better
The entire food-industry campaign to defeat a series of state ballot measures that would require mandatory labeling of foods with genetically engineered ingredients has been counterproductive from the start. Every attack on consumers’ “right to know” simply reinforces the widespread distrust and even disgust the public increasingly harbors toward anything with Big in front of its name.
Big Food, Big Ag, Big Meat and especially Big Business.
People’s opinions of the corporations that dominate most sectors of the economy range from all the way from severe disapproval to white-hot hatred. From cable companies that gouge their customers to drug companies that gouge their patients to oil companies that gouge everyone, “big” means “bad” as far as a majority of Americans are concerned.
So when the largest and most dominant food companies gang up to squash a labeling initiative—wrongheaded as it is—it’s all too easy for activists to equate genetic engineering with a host of other unpleasant, unfair and unacceptable tactics to which too many corporations too often resort.
And there’s even a poster boy for the animosity people feel toward domineering corporations: Monsanto.
Here’s the ultimate irony in the court’s decision that the GMA was playing dirty tricks wile pouring millions into the campaign to oppose GMO labeling: Washington’s attorney general is planning to indict the Food Democracy Action group — which supported the GMO ballot measure — for being several months late in disclosing the sources of some $200,000 they spent prior to the election.
Think that story’s going to get much attention?
As long as the genetically engineered ingredients used in a significant percentage of the food products we all consume can be linked to the big, bad corporations that people distrust and dislike, the issue will never be able to receive a fair hearing based on the irrefutable science that such foods are totally safe and wholesome.
The way industry wins isn’t to pour multi-millions into fighting against mandatory labeling — and certainly not by trying to hide the source of such funding — but by stepping up once and for all to begin voluntary, proactive labeling.
Beats losing in court and with the public.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator