Since 2012, the millions who want transparency in their food products have been fighting the Grocery Manufacturer's Association of America (GMA), the brazen trade and lobbying group for junk food makers.
Representing major processed food giants like Coke and General Mills, as well as biotech and GMO seed companies like Monsanto, the GMA has probably done more to harm the nation's collective health than any other single lobbying group.
Now, there is good news about this seemingly indefatigable junk food giant: It's shutting down. GMA has announced a "rebranding,"1 replete with new name, agenda, goals and personnel. These changes amount to the end of GMA as we know it. We won.
We planted the seeds against this behemoth almost eight years ago, and patiently waited like old-fashioned farmers, for results to sprout. All of you who boycotted the products owned by GMA members, and joined in the many GMO initiatives in which we were pitted against the GMA, are to be congratulated for this wonderful triumph.
New Name and Different Mission
The GMA will be called the Consumer Brands Association (CBA), starting in 2020.2 Its four new goals3 are:
- Advocating for uniform regulation including recycling rules
- Improving packaging sustainability
- Building trust in consumer packaged goods
- Improving supply chains
These goals are a far cry from the aggressive, anti-transparency, consumer-be-damned attitudes that characterized the GMA. The changes are also marked by changes in personnel.
The new CEO of CBA, Geoff Freeman, has no food industry background and most recently worked with the American Gaming Association.4 Gone is the former GMA CEO Pamela Bailey, who worked tirelessly against GMO labeling or, as the GMA puts it, sought "a uniform national standard for required disclosure of food and beverage ingredients from biotechnology."5
Also gone is former GMA chairman Chris Policinski6 (who also served as the CEO of Land O'Lakes7) and three other GMA leaders.8 The exodus of officers from the GMA followed the departure of major members.
Thanks to dedicated food activists, in recent years anchor members like Nestlé, Kraft, Mars, Campbell Soup Co. Hershey, Unilever, Tyson Foods, Dean Foods, DowDuPont, Cargill,9 Kraft Heinz and Hershey10 all pulled out. (Conagra Brands, Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, Henkel, Kellogg, Keurig Dr Pepper11 and Pepsico remain.12)
On the record, some of the ex-members said they left because the GMA no longer represented them13 or GMA had become too political.14 But off the record, insiders say ex-members believed the GMA did not evolve with consumer sentiments and put members in opposition to their own customers who wanted more accountability and transparency.15 The defections likely cut GMA finances in half, according to one insider.16
Trail of Shame Began in 2012
GMA's anti-consumer, anti-transparency activities date back to at least 2012, when it was influential in defeating California's Proposition 37, which would have required labeling of GMO ingredients and prohibited such products being deemed "natural."17
Despite the support of Prop. 37 from food producing companies and farming interests, the tremendous money from the junk food industry tipped the scales. In a triumphant statement the GMA wrote:18
"GMA and its member companies are pleased that California voters have rejected Proposition 37. Proposition 37 was a deeply flawed measure that would have resulted in higher food costs, frivolous lawsuits, and increased state bureaucracies. This is a big win for California consumers, taxpayers, businesses and farmers.
Foods and beverages that contain genetically engineered ingredients have been exhaustively studied and all of the leading scientific and regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), US Department of Agriculture, the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, have concluded that these products are safe and are not materially different than their traditional counterparts."
Donors who secured the defeat of Prop. 37 included 40 the nation's Big Food manufacturers as well as pesticides/GMO seeds companies like DOW Agrisciences, Bayer Cropscience, BASF Plant Science and Syngenta Corporation.19
Since the defeat, some of the food makers have left GMA20 but the anti-Prop 37 pesticide/GMO seed companies have only strengthened their organizations' through cagey mergers and aggressive bids for worldwide dominance.21
The Unethical Lobbying Continued
When consumers became aware of the names of food companies whose donations helped defeat California's Prop 37 — companies that didn't think consumers had the right to know if they were eating GMOs — a massive backlash and consumer boycotts ensued.
To avoid a repeat of angry consumers during the I-522 ballot campaign to label GMOs in Washington State the following year, GMA came up with an ingenious scheme for hiding the identities of its donors.
GMA created a "brand defense" account that paid for the anti I-522 campaign's communications without disclosing where the money came from, effectively hiding the identity of the donors.
There was just one problem with this maneuver. It's illegal. GMA was sued by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who accused them of intentional money laundering and violating state campaign disclosure laws. In a 2013 article, Sustainable Pulse reported:22
"Ferguson filed suit in Thurston County Superior Court asking for a temporary restraining order and for the GMA to immediately comply with state disclosure laws, indicating who contributed, how much they contributed, and how the money was spent to oppose I 522. He is also requesting civil penalties and cost of investigation and trial, including reasonable attorneys fees."
GMA Found Guilty of Money Laundering
Thanks to Ferguson's lawsuit, GMA was forced to establish a political committee called Grocery Manufacturers Association Against I-522 and release the list of donors that it had tried to hide.23
The list of over 30 donors included the "usual suspects" like PepsiCo, General Mills, Coca-Cola, ConAgra Foods, Hillshire Brands, Hormel, Land O'Lakes and Kellogg Company. Together, they donated millions of dollars to fight GMO disclosure. What an irony that the companies who wanted to hide GMOs in their products could no longer hide their own identities.
In 2016, GMA was found guilty of money laundering and ordered to pay $18 million in penalties — thought to be the largest penalty levied for a campaign-related violation in the U.S. In her ruling, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch wrote:24
"The totality of the record establishes under a preponderance of evidence, as well as the higher clear, cogent and convincing standard, that the GMA intentionally violated Washington state public campaign finance laws."
Because the penalty included treble damages, the GMA appealed it, and a three-judge panel subsequently sent it back to Hirsch for review.25 When both the state trial court and appellate court upheld the review, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) picked up the fight on behalf of GMA, alleging that Hirsch's ruling on which she based the penalty was in error.26
Compelling members of certain organizations to disclose their memberships is a violation of the First Amendment, NAM alleges, and allowing a ruling like Hirsch's to stand "can chill public policy advocacy and undermine a robust debate on important issues," in the future. Therefore, NAM is asking that her entire judgment be reversed. "Anonymous and pseudonymous political speech is an important part of the American tradition," NAM claims.27
The ramifications of this case for consumers are enormous: If the appeal wins, it very well may be impossible in the future to find out who or what is behind any Big Industry group like GMA. While this case continues to play out, the point is the GMA is already paying for its transgressions by having to restructure into its new, weakened form.
Aggressively Suing States and Seeking Preemption
The GMA's pro-GMO, anti-transparency efforts were not restricted to defeating ballot measures. After countersuing Washington state over the money laundering charges and getting their penalties reduced, the GMA sought a preliminary injunction to prevent Vermont from implementing the labeling law Act 120.
The law was targeted because it would take effect regardless of action from other states.28 For years, the GMA strenuously tried to preempt state laws like Vermont's with GMO-friendly federal legislation. Here is how Scholarship Law Berkeley described the GMA's efforts.29
"With the possibility of a federal labeling law for GMOs, many food manufacturers, such as the Grocery Manufacturer's Association (GMA), spent time and effort pushing for a law that would create more uniformity.
GMA President and CEO Pamela Bailey highlighted that a federal law 'would eliminate consumer uncertainty created by a state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws, advance food safety, inform consumers and provide consistency in labeling.'
She explained that '[t]he alternative — a patchwork of state and local food laws across the country with different labeling mandates and requirements — will create confusion, cause significant new costs for Americans, and lead to critical problems for our nation's grocery supply chain.'"
Of course, Big Food always cites the risk of "confusing" the consumer when it tries to cover up its ingredients.
Good News for All Who Want Healthy Food
The defeat of GMA is likely to improve the health of the whole nation. Americans should never be denied the knowledge of GMOs, sugars and other harmful ingredients lurking in their food. Today's consumers want to exercise their right to make conscious and conscientious food choices, and in order to do that, food companies must label their foods honestly and transparently.
The now defunct GMA failed because it refused to keep up with the times and listen to consumer wants and needs. In a tweet, Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right To Know, commented on the GMA's "rebranding" into the watered-down Consumer Brands Association:30
"A big victory for consumers, public health and the food movement: the ultra-processed junk food industry's trade association is so tarnished and discredited that today it is changing its name and focus. Good riddance."