By Marcy Stamper
Although Washington voters will decide this week whether they want labels indicating which foods have been genetically engineered, the verdict on the record-breaking campaign expenditures on Initiative 522 is not likely to be settled for months.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the largest contributor to the No on 522 campaign, was sued Oct. 16 by Washington’s attorney general for failure to reveal the names of individual donors who gave a total of $7.2 million to its campaign to defeat the initiative. The lawsuit was amended Oct. 30 to include an additional $3.7 million for which donors names were also not initially disclosed.
Not only did the GMA violate Washington’s campaign disclosure laws by grouping donors in a single fund rather than listing them individually, but the Washington, D.C.–based trade association also did not file proof that it had met the state’s requirement for contributions of at least $10 each from at least 10 registered Washington voters, according to the lawsuit.
The GMA is the largest contributor to the campaign opposing the labeling initiative, I-522, but it did not provide the names of contributors until the attorney general filed suit. Two days after the lawsuit was filed, the GMA listed the 34 individual contributors of $7.2 million to the fund it had created for donations opposing the initiative. The GMA listed the contributors of the additional $3.7 million on Oct. 25 and 26. The grocery association certified on Oct. 28 that 14 Washington voters each gave $10 to its political committee, for a total of $140.
PepsiCo is the largest contributor to GMA’s committee, at $1.62 million, followed by Nestlé USA and the Coca-Cola Company, which each gave close to $1.05 million, according to filings with the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).
The other biggest donors to the No on 522 campaign include Monsanto, which contributed $4.8 million; and Dupont Pioneer, which put $3.4 million into the campaign. Monsanto and Dupont produce genetically engineered seeds and agricultural chemicals.
The GMA represents more than 300 food, beverage and consumer-product companies, according to the attorney general’s office.
Groups supporting I-522 reported contributions of just over $9 million, according to the PDC.
Washington’s campaign-finance laws require that all campaign contributions and expenditures be reported to the PDC. State law does not require the names of contributors of less than $25.
On Nov. 5, voters were asked whether they supported I-522, which would require raw foods, including fruits, vegetables, and some meat and fish, to be prominently labeled with the words “genetically engineered” if applicable. Most processed foods containing genetically engineered ingredients would also have to carry a label. Polls showed a close contest before Election Day.
Certain foods would be exempt, including most milk and cheese and foods sold in restaurants. Meat and milk would have to be labeled if the animal itself was the product of genetic engineering, but not if it was only fed genetically engineered foods. No genetically modified animals are currently sold for consumption.
The attorney general’s lawsuit asks that the court find the GMA in violation of the law, set an appropriate penalty for GMA’s failure to comply with Washington’s disclosure laws, and order the association to pay the state’s attorneys’ fees and related costs. While the GMA registered as a political committee and has been filing reports, it has not admitted any wrongdoing, according to the attorney general’s office.
Unless the case is resolved prior to trial, the attorney general’s office will first have to prove the GMA violated Washington campaign finance laws. If the violations are proven, the court will determine the appropriate penalties, according to the attorney general’s office.
Thurston County Superior Court is expected to set a date in February to hear the case. As an out-of-state entity, the GMA has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit.