Grocery Manufacturers Broke Washington Law to Defeat GMO Labeling Bill

March 14, 2016
State court finds the group intentionally hid the names of big food companies trying to defeat 2013 GMO labeling initiative.

The Grocery Manufacturers Assn. violated Washington’s campaign-finance disclosure laws by shielding the names of companies that contributed to an $11 million campaign to defeat a 2013 ballot initiative to label foods with genetically engineered ingredients, a state judge has ruled.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch on March 11 rejected GMA arguments that the state disclosure law is unconstitutionally vague, ruling the group purposefully sought to hide donors from public scrutiny, according to a report in the Yakima Herald. The lawsuit was filed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Other reports said it was unclear if GMA understood and knowingly violated the law, which could reduce any penalties the group may face. However, the Yakima Herald quoted Judge Hirsh as writing: "There is one, and only one, reasonable inference that can be drawn from the facts before this court: that the GMA intentionally took steps to create and then hide the true source of the funds … from the voting public of Washington state."

GMA responded: "We believe the ruling today to dismiss GMA's First Amendment claim will hurt the constitutionally protected right of trade associations to engage in political debate in the state. The ruling today noted that there is evidence that GMA believed its conduct was appropriate under state law, which is an important point in determining any penalty. In the upcoming trial, we believe the facts will show that GMA always intended to comply with the law."

Other reports also noted the state's attorney general may be looking at similar infractions by groups that lobbied to pass the Initiative 522, which would have required labels on genetically modified foods in Washington. GMA was the largest donor to the campaign against the initiative, which spent a record $22 million. As we reported, the list of donors was just made public in February.

The initiative was defeated 51 percent to 49 percent.

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