Big Food uses dirty tricks in ballot fights over GMO labeling, soda taxes

Voter initiatives in California, Oregon and Colorado illustrate what’s at stake in the food wars

October 31, 2014 2:00AM ET
The window of Casa Thai Market in San Francisco. San Francisco and Berkeley are aiming to be the first U.S. cities to pass per-ounce taxes on sugary drinks.
Jeff Chiu / AP

On Nov. 4, voters in three Western states will decide four food-related ballot measures that seem to have little in common: The two state-level measures (in Oregon and Colorado) would require genetically engineered (aka GMO) foods to be labeled as such, and two local initiatives in California (in San Francisco and Berkeley) would place a small tax on sugary soft drinks.

But they do have something in common. A large portion of the opposition for all four measures is being funded by two megacorporations: Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Moreover, the opposition is using many of the same tactics.

Let’s start with the money — and there’s lots of it. In Oregon the biggest donors to the $16.3 million fund opposing the GMO-labeling measure, after biotech giants Dupont and Monsanto, are PepsiCo ($1.4 million) and Coca-Cola ($1.17 million), according to reporting by The Oregonian. Supporters of the measure have raised a respectable $6.7 million so far.

In Colorado the opposition has raised more than $11 million so far, compared with only $440,000 by GMO labeling proponents. Again, Monsanto and Dupont are the largest donors to the “no” campaign, with PepsiCo coming in third, with $1.65 million donated so far, followed by Coca-Cola, with $1.1 million. PepsiCo has a huge stake in these battles. The largest food corporation in the nation, it owns far more than just beverages; the numerous brands under its Frito-Lay and Quaker Oats divisions will also be affected by the passage of GMO labeling laws.

Meanwhile in California, the beverage industry is spending a staggering amount of money to defeat the two soda tax measures. In San Francisco the “no” campaign has just topped $9 million, compared with only $225,000 raised by the measure’s proponents. Across the bay in Berkeley, Big Soda has raised $1.7 million, an astounding figure, given the city’s small size — about 100,000 residents. (Two years ago, industry giants spent close to $2.5 million defeating a similar measure in Richmond, also east of San Francisco.)

Clearly Big Soda — which likes to claim it cares about communities — has a lot of money to throw around to try to buy votes.

The best lies money can buy

So what does all that money get Big Soda? One big bag of dirty tricks.

For GMO labeling, the opposition was able to defeat other ballot measures in California and Washington State mainly by scaring voters into thinking food prices would increase dramatically if GMO labels were required, despite the lack of credible evidence to back up this claim. In Oregon and Colorado, the opponents are trotting out the same tired arguments, claiming the measures would increase grocery bills by hundreds of dollars per year. Never mind a recent report from Consumers Union that estimates that requiring GMO labels would cost only $2.30 per person annually.

Similarly, Big Soda is using money-related fearmongering to dissuade California voters from imposing soda taxes. In San Francisco the opposition is exploiting residents’ anxiety over the city’s affordability. The campaign’s website — tellingly named AffordableSF.com — declares, “The last thing we need is a tax that makes it even more expensive to live and work in San Francisco.” But as blogger Dana Woldow has pointed out at the alternative daily BeyondChron in her excellent series tracking Big Soda’s tactics, soda companies care only about getting low-income communities’ dollars, not about their health and well-being; just consider how the industry targets communities of color with excessive marketing. Moreover, many of these populations suffer disproportionately from health problems caused by drinking too much soda, such as diabetes.

In Berkeley the “no” side is engaging in similar scare tactics by calling the soda tax regressive, suggesting that higher prices will affect poor people the most. But as sustainable-food advocate Anna Lappé (and Al Jazeera contributor) pointed out in The Nation, “Big Soda seems to care about poor people only when a soda tax hits the ballot.” 

The food and beverage industry buys credibility by paying others to carry its message to voters.

Hiding behind the locals

Another tactic being deployed in both the GMO labeling and soda tax battles is astroturfing, a common corporate strategy in which lobbyists hide behind a front group or other sympathetic representatives with local and grass-roots credibility. Given their obvious biases, the CEOs of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo can’t exactly go door to door or appear in TV ads to explain why voters should reject GMO labeling or soda taxes. Instead, industry buys credibility by paying others to carry their message to the voters.

In Colorado for example, the “no” campaign has Don Ament as its spokesman in a TV ad opposing GMO labeling. Ament is identified as a “former agriculture commissioner for the Colorado Department of Agriculture,” which is true. But his LinkedIn profile listed his role as a lobbyist for J. Andrew Green and Associates for the past 24 years. Apparently, once word of this got out, Ament scrubbed that job from his profile; an experienced lobbyist, after all, is out of step with the “farmer” image the ads try to portray. Last year in Washington the opposition similarly enlisted the former head of the state’s agriculture department to appear on TV ads urging people to vote “no.”

In the two soda tax battles, astroturfing has reached absurd heights. In San Francisco the industry front group, which calls itself the Coalition for an Affordable City, recruited campaign workers to march in the city’s Chinatown against the measure, posting photos to Facebook showing people holding signs and wearing pro-soda-industry T-shirts. Maureen Erwin, a political consultant working pro bono for the pro-soda-tax campaign, told me these marchers were paid for their appearance. To make the point, Erwin showed up at the rally carrying a sign that read, “This pretend rally is brought to you by Coke and Pepsi.”

And as I wrote in February, The San Francisco Bay Guardian caught Big Soda operatives signing up numerous unwitting local businesses to their list of supporters. In some cases, low-level employees signed on without authority and other businesses were no longer even open.

Finally, in Berkeley, Big Soda is paying young people to pass out literature at transit stations and go door to door. One group of canvassers shunned a Mother Jones reporter, saying they weren’t allowed to speak to media. In The Nation, Lappé described a neighbor’s experience with a canvasser: “He said he was working for a City Council member opposed to the tax, but when asked which one, he couldn't come up with a name. The City Council is unanimously in support of the measure.”

But Lappé told me she thinks her neighbors are wise to what’s going on and is confident the measure will pass. “Across the board, the people I talk to here are feeling increasingly turned off by a soda industry that thinks it can buy our vote,” she said.

Much is at stake this November for the GMO labeling and soda tax efforts, on both sides. Some think if a soda tax measure can’t pass in liberal Northern California, then it can’t pass anywhere. Similarly, with two states having lost GMO labeling ballot measures already, the last thing that movement needs is another defeat at the polls. On the flip side, a loss for the food and beverage industry on any of these four measures will inspire more cities and states to take up the fight.

The good news is that the more we identify these shady lobbying tactics and dirty tricks and expose the moneyed interests behind them, the less effective the industry efforts will be. 

Michele Simon is a public health lawyer, the president of Eat Drink Politics, the author of “Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back” and an attorney with Foscolo and Handel, the food law firm.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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