Battle over GMO labeling has natural brands and corporate owners at odds

With upcoming ballot in Washington state, advocates follow the money behind the corporate owners of natural brands

Labels on bags of snack food indicate their ingredients don't contain any GMOs. Voters in Washington state decide Nov. 5 if they want to make such labels the law.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

It's not easy eating green.

Even the most informed omnivore must navigate a labyrinth of half-truths and dubious marketing claims to find foods that are, to use a loaded term, "natural."

And for Americans who want to know whether their food contains genetically modified organisms -- crops that have had their genetic sequencing artificially restructured, usually known as GMOs -- the path is much less clear. The scientific consensus has consistently ruled GMO crops as safe for human consumption, but some countries have banned their use citing a lack of independent research.

On Nov. 5, Washington state will decide the outcome of "The People's Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act," or I-522, a bill focused not on the safety of GMOs, but on transparency in the food system. Last fall, voters in California narrowly rejected a similar initiative, Proposition 37, that would have mandated all genetically modified and engineered foods (the latter known as GEs) be labeled accordingly.

Shoppers heard for years that their food purchase helped them to "vote with their forks." But Prop 37 and I-522 represent a new frontier, author Michael Pollan wrote in 2012, that allows people to vote "with votes, not just forks." In Washington, television ads from both sides debuted last week, and voters from Seattle to Spokane are watching a battle shaped by the lessons of California's foray into food policy activism.

The Prop 37 campaign exposed a startling disconnect: the marketing messages of some of the country's most familiar "all-natural" packaged goods contradicted the political spending of their corporate parents. For consumer rights activists, the loss in California was a major setback. Had the law passed in the country's most populous state, industry-watchers expected similar policies would become normalized nationwide.

To the corporations and agribusinesses that spent $46 million to help defeat what they considered onerous government regulation, the Golden State's dance with GMO labeling was a brush with disaster. Opponents — including bio-tech and food manufacturing giants such as Dow AgroSciences and PepsiCo Inc. — outspent supporters five-to-one. The Monsanto Company chipped in more than $8 million, nearly as much as the total raised by the pro-labeling campaign. Despite such lopsided outsider spending (22 percent of "No" contributions were made by organizations based in Washington, D.C.), the initiative lost by less than 3 percent.

Corporate political donations are nothing new, but it was the brands under these companies that provided the real surprise.

Is it possible to avoid GMOs?

Research compiled by the Cornucopia Institute, an industry and government watchdog group, showed that some of the same brands that publicly decry GMOs are owned by corporations that contributed to Prop 37's demise.

"We use what Mother Nature gave us," claims Naked Juice, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, which donated $2.4 million to "No on 37." For Naked, the contradictions reached beyond GMO labeling, and in August, after consumer frustration evolved into legal action, the company agreed to a $9 million settlement on a class-action lawsuit over its all-natural claims.

"If companies are misrepresenting what they do, our job is to empower the consumer and the farming community," said Mark Kastel, director of the Cornucopia Institute, who accuses several brands of "betraying the values of their customers" by contributing to the campaign to defeat Prop 37. 

In an August 2012 report, the Institute issued a shopper's guide about "natural" brands whose parent companies were making those contributions, including the parent companies of Muir Glen (General Mills Inc., $1.2 million); Kashi (Kellogg Co., $790,700); Santa Kruz Organic (The J.M. Smucker Company, $555,000); and Ben & Jerry's (Unilever, $467,100).

When questioned on the discrepancy, General Mills pointed to a statement released last August. "We believe labeling regulations should be set at the national level, not state-by-state," the company said during the Prop 37 campaign. Kellogg, Smucker and Unilever did not respond to press inquiries for this story. 

Should genetically engineered food be labeled?

But even the most cautious shoppers and vendors know just how difficult it is to avoid GMOs altogether.

"If we were to discontinue everything with GMOs, we would have a lot of members say, 'Where is that food that I love?'" said Joe Holtz, general manager of Brooklyn's Park Slope Co-op. "It's so pervasive, so you do the best you can."

Across the country at the Boise Co-op in Boise, Idaho, Saul Seyler faces a similar reality. "We don't have a hard and fast policy," Seyler said about carrying products without GMO labels or companies that contributed to Prop 37's demise.

According to the Center for Food Safety, GMO or GE labeling laws are on the books in 64 countries, a list that includes every member state of the European Union, China, Brazil, Japan, Australia and India, but not the United States or Canada. Several U.S. states have introduced labeling measures and two preliminary laws were recently passed in Maine and Connecticut, but none have been implemented.

Chubby Hubby and activism

Ben & Jerry's web page in support of the Washington state initiative to label food with GMOs.
Ben & Jerry's

More than 800 all-natural and organic companies pursue transparency on their own through third-party verification on roughly 12,000 products with the Non-GMO Project. Nevertheless, as Kastel pointed out, even some Non-GMO partners are dealing with parent corporations whose political activities threaten the customer relationships that brands spend millions of advertising dollars cultivating.

Ben & Jerry's, a wholly owned subsidiary of Unilever, is a prime example. The Vermont-based company has made feel-good progressive politics central to its identity since Ben Greenfield and Jerry Cohen started selling ice cream out of a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vt., in 1978. Couch-bound customers who felt guilty about downing a pint of "Chubby Hubby" could at least feel good about saving the Amazon rainforest.

After Ben & Jerry's was purchased by the second-largest consumer goods corporation in the world in 2000, it maintained its independent progressive mission. In 2012, when Unilever contributed nearly a half million dollars to "No on 37," Ben & Jerry's launched its "Get the Dough Out" campaign, an activist platform, which said "there's so much big money flooding into our elections...the voice of regular folks is being drowned out."

Chris Miller, a Ben & Jerry's spokesman, said the company remains a "values-led business" with a "long history of commitment to transparency and a consumer's right to know," and cited its early stance on synthetic growth hormone labeling.

Ben & Jerry's is currently 80 percent GMO-free and, regardless of Unilever's position, is committed to total non-GMO verification by mid-2014, Miller said.

Miller did not comment on the relationship between the brand and the corporation. "I don't speak for Unilever," he said. 

With the Washington state vote just two months away, Ben & Jerry's has also become a prominent supporter of I-522. At a recent Yes on I-522 event in Seattle, founder Jerry Greenfield said labeling GMOs "is doable at virtually no extra cost." His namesake company has sent a "scoop truck" to Washington state as a voter education vehicle (with free ice cream).

Contributions to the "No on 522" campaign increased significantly in September, with bio-tech firms DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto spending $3.4 million and $4.8 million respectively. And the companies are just two of the six corporate contributors to the No campaign. So far, zero contributions have been made by individual citizens.

Twelve days before California voted on Prop 37 last November, Unilever sent $372,100 to the anti-labeling campaign in California. The corporation has not made a contribution to Washington state, but Ben & Jerry's knows where it stands. "There are a whole bunch of arguments about why GMO labeling is confusing or complicated," said Ben & Jerry's spokesman Miller. "But I-522 is about five words on a pack of ice cream. It's doesn't strike us as that complicated."

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