By Marcy Stamper

Although an initiative seeking labeling of genetically modified foods was rejected by voters in November, the tussle continues between Washington’s attorney general and a trade association that was the largest contributor to the campaign to defeat the initiative.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a trade association of food and beverage companies based in Washington, D.C., in October 2013 for allegedly violating Washington’s campaign-finance disclosure laws.

This month the GMA struck back, calling Washington’s law requiring that the group register as a political committee unconstitutional.

Ferguson sued the GMA for failure to reveal the names of individual donors who gave a total of $10.6 million to the effort to defeat the initiative. He also charged the group with not complying with a state law that requires a minimum $10 contribution from 10 registered Washington voters to all political campaigns.

In the response to the lawsuit, the GMA said that Ferguson’s charges violate the state constitution as well as the GMA’s right to free speech.

“GMA’s members use ingredients that are derived from biotechnology—more commonly referred to as genetically modified organisms (‘GMOs’)—in some of their products…. GMA and its members have a substantial interest in addressing government initiatives… that would require its member companies to specially label products containing GMOs,” the group stated in the court documents, filed Jan. 3, in response to Ferguson’s charges.

“To acquire the resources required to participate in this public debate, GMA’s food-manufacturing board members were assessed additional dues payments… and the proceeds… were maintained in a ‘Defense of Brand Strategic Account,’” GMA stated in the response.

Because the funds are used for various purposes, including consumer research relating to GMOs; were not earmarked only for political campaigns; and were a condition of membership in the association, the fund does not constitute a political committee, argued the GMA.

Two days after the attorney general filed the lawsuit in October, the GMA provided a list of the individual contributors to its campaign. The largest contributor was PepsiCo, followed by Nestlé USA and the Coca-Cola Company.

“After breaking our state’s campaign-finance disclosure laws, the GMA now seeks to have them declared unconstitutional,” Ferguson said in a statement about the case. “I look forward to defending transparency in Washington elections.”

A scheduling conference is set for next month in Thurston County Superior Court.