Grocers’ Group Spends Record Lobbying Amid Food-Labeling Fights

A proposal to require labeling of genetically engineered foods and seeds in Washington state enjoyed broad public support in polls this summer.

That was before some of the largest food companies swooped in to spend more so consumers would know less about what they are eating.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a Washington-based trade group that represents companies such as ConAgra Foods Inc. and Kraft Foods Group Inc., was responsible for $11 million of the $22 million campaign against the initiative, compared with about $9 million by pro-labeling advocates.

The GMA’s campaign made the difference. The initiative, which had 66 percent support in a September survey, was defeated by 51 percent to 49 percent.

The grocers, who opposed the proposal as arbitrary and costly for businesses, raised more than $2.3 million from PepsiCo Inc. and about $1.5 million each from Coca-Cola Co., and Nestle SA’s Nestle USA. Those groups also were part of a $45 million campaign that defeated a labeling initiative in California last year.

The GMA’s spending in Washington state, which helped fund $13 million in television, print and online advertisements, shows the “impact that one group can have in terms of being able to ramp up the spending” on the airwaves, said Bill Allison, the editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based watchdog group.

Spend Anything

“Spending is not a problem” for organizations opposed to labeling requirements, said Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety, which backed the Washington state initiative. “These companies will spend whatever it takes to defeat labeling at the state level.”

If that’s the case, the trade associations and their members will be issuing a lot more checks as fights over labeling food are breaking out in other states and advocates are pressing the matter in Congress with proposed legislation from both sides awaiting action.

Advocates in Oregon are seeking a ballot initiative, and Vermont is considering a bill. Legislatures in Connecticut and Maine overwhelmingly passed measures in June, though they can’t go into effect until some other states enact similar laws. There were 52 labeling bills introduced in 26 states this year and more are expected next year, O’Neil said.

In Washington, Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, and Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, have introduced legislation that would require labeling of genetically engineered food. Boxer last sponsored a labeling bill 13 years ago; she reintroduced her legislation a few months after the California initiative was defeated.

Keep Fighting

“We will keep up the fight at the state level,” though “we would like to see a strong mandatory labeling standard,” O’Neil said.

The Washington election was “probably too close for comfort” for the GMA, and member companies including Nestle are “aware that their brand reputation is on the line the longer they fight the consumer demand for labeling,” he said.

The grocers oppose a “50-state patchwork” of labeling laws and “will advocate for a federal solution” with standards set by the Food and Drug Administration, Pamela G. Bailey, GMA’s president and chief executive officer, said in a statement after the Washington state election. GMA spokesman Brian Kennedy said in a Nov. 21 e-mail that the labeling system should be clear and voluntary.

Using images of a pediatric dietitian and a farmer, the grocers helped fund commercials that criticized the measure for being poorly written and costly to businesses that would pass on those expenses to the consumer.

Escalating Costs

The grocers’ trade group spending in Washington state drove its lobbying expenses to $7.5 million in the three-month period from July to September, more than its spending in the previous eight quarters combined, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The lobbying reports list a cumulative total and don’t classify spending by issue area. The GMA, which also lobbied in the third quarter on a five-year farm-and-food bill and the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord, reports its lobbying expenses using an Internal Revenue Code definition that includes federal and state political efforts.

The trade group’s accelerated activity extends to its strategy of political giving.

Ramped-Up Donations

GMA’s political action committee sent $34,000 to federal candidates and committees in September, more than three times as much as it donated in any other month this year. The PAC gave $10,000 each to the House Democratic and Republican campaign organizations on Sept. 30, a sign it wants to reinforce its bipartisan alliances as it pursues its interests.

Sarah Cannon, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, referred requests for comment to GMA’s Kennedy. Corporate media relations at PepsiCo didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Other groups opposed to the labeling initiative joined GMA in increasing its lobbying spending in the third quarter.

Monsanto Co., a maker of bioengineered crop seeds, spent more than $2.4 million on lobbying in the third quarter, its most in any quarter since the first three months of 2010, federal lobbying documents show.

St. Louis-based Monsanto spent $5.43 million on lobbying in the first nine months of this year, up 15 percent from $4.73 million over a similar period a year ago. Monsanto spent $5.4 million to oppose the Washington state ballot initiative.

Nestle USA, based in Glendale, California, spent $1.47 million on lobbying in the third quarter, more than it spent in the previous two quarters combined. It spent $2.89 million on lobbying in the first nine months of the year, up 10 percent from $2.61 million over a similar period last year.