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.”
Biotech Companies Gain Power by Taking Over the Government
There is no doubt in my mind that GMOs and the toxic chemicals used along with them pose a serious threat to the environment and our health, yet government agencies turn a blind eye and refuse to act — and the reason is very clear: They are furthering the interests of the biotech giants.
It is well known that there is a revolving door between government agencies and biotech companies like Monsanto-now-Bayer. Consider the hypocrisy of the FDA. On paper, the U.S. may have the strictest food safety laws in the world governing new food additives, but this agency has repeatedly allowed GMOs and their accompanying pesticides and herbicides like Roundup to evade these laws.
In fact, the only legal basis for allowing GE foods to be marketed in the U.S. is the FDA’s claim that these foods are inherently safe, a claim which is patently ridiculous. Documents released as a result of a lawsuit against the FDA reveal that the agency’s own scientists warned their superiors about the detrimental risks of GE foods. But their warnings fell on deaf ears.
The influence of the biotech giants is not limited to the U.S. In a June 2017 article, GMWatch revealed that 26 of the 34 members of the National Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology of Argentina (CONABIA) are either employed by chemical technology companies or have major conflicts of interest.
You may be aware that Argentina is one of the countries where single-crop fields of GE cotton, corn and soy dominate the countryside. Argentina is also a country facing severe environmental destruction. Argentines are plagued with health issues, including degenerative diseases and physical deformities. It would appear that the rapid expansion of GE crops and the subsequent decline in national health indicators are intrinsically linked.
Don’t Be Duped by Industry Shills!
Biotech companies’ outrageous attempts to push for their corporate interests extend far beyond the halls of government. In a further effort to hoodwink the public, Monsanto/Bayer and their cohorts have been caught zealously spoon-feeding scientists, academics and journalists with questionable studies that depict them in a positive light.
By hiring “third-party experts,” biotech companies are able to take information of dubious validity and present it as independent and authoritative. It’s a shameful practice that is far more common than anyone would like to think. One notorious example of this is Henry Miller, who was thoroughly outed as a Monsanto shill during the 2012 Proposition 37 GMO labeling campaign in California.
Miller, falsely posing as a Stanford professor, promoted GE foods during this campaign. In 2015, he published a paper in Forbes Magazine attacking the findings of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, after it classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. After it was revealed that Miller’s work was in fact ghostwritten by Monsanto, Forbes not only fired him, but also removed all of his work from its site.
Industry front groups also abound. The Genetic Literacy Project and the American Council on Science and Health were both Monsanto-funded before Bayer bought Monsanto. Whether that funding continues under Bayer is left to be seen, but other “trusted” sources were also caught taking Monsanto money.
For example, WebMD, a website that is often presented as a trustworthy source of “independent and objective” health information, was exposed acting as a lackey for Monsanto by using its influence to promote corporate-backed health strategies and products, displaying advertisements and advertorials on Big Biotechs’ behalf, furthering the biotech industry’s agenda — all for the sake of profit.
But even with underhanded tactics to peddle their toxic products, biotechs are now unable to hide the truth: Genetic engineering will in no way, shape or form make the world a better place. It will not solve world hunger. It will not increase farmers’ livelihoods. And it most certainly will not do any good for your health — and may in fact prove to be detrimental.
There’s No Better Time to Act Than NOW — Here’s What to Do
So now the question is: Will you continue supporting the corrupt, toxic and unsustainable food system that Big Biotech, Monsanto/Bayer and their industry shills and profit-hungry lackeys have painstakingly crafted? It is largely up to all of us, as consumers, to loosen and break their tight hold on our food supply. The good news is that the tide has turned.
As consumers worldwide become increasingly aware of the problems linked to GE crops and the toxic chemicals, herbicides and pesticides used on them, more and more people are proactively refusing to eat these foods. There’s also strong growth in the global organic and grass fed sectors. This just proves one thing: We can make a difference if we steadily work toward the same goal.
One of the best things you can do is to buy your foods from a local farmer who runs a small business and uses diverse methods that promote regenerative agriculture. You can also join a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, where you can buy a “share” of the vegetables produced by the farm, so you get a regular supply of fresh food. I believe that joining a CSA is a powerful investment not only in your own health, but in that of your local community and economy as well.
In addition, you should also adopt preventive strategies that can help reduce the toxic chemical pollution that assaults your body. I recommend visiting these trustworthy sites for non-GMO food resources in your country:
Monsanto, Bayer and their allies want you to think that they control everything, but they do not. It’s you, the masses, who hold the power in your hands. Let’s all work together to topple the biotech industry’s house of cards. Remember — it all starts with shopping smart and making the best food purchases for you and your family.