Washington Attorney General Enters Fight on GMO Labeling Initiative

In November, voters in Washington State will decide whether or not to require labels on genetically engineered foods. Initiative 522, a bill designed to provide people with the information about what is in the food they eat, would require labels on foods produced using genetic engineering. 522 defines “genetically engineered” as the artificial insertion of genetic material into plants, or, more specifically:

…any food that is produced from an organism or organisms (any biological entity capable of replication, reproduction, or transferring genetic material) in which the genetic material has been changed through the application of:

(i) In vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid techniques and the direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles, that use vector systems and techniques involving the direct introduction into the organisms of hereditary material prepared outside the organisms, such as micro-injection, macro-injection, chemoporation, electroporation, micro-encapsulation, and liposome fusion; or

(ii) fusion of cells, including protoplast fusion, or hybridization techniques that overcome natural physiological, reproductive, or recombination barriers, where the donor cells or protoplasts do not fall within the same taxonomic family, in a way that does not occur by natural multiplication or natural recombination.

Food manufacturers oppose the Initiative and have lobbied against 522 in print and media. The Washington state Attorney General, however, recently filed a lawsuit against the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), alleging that in their attempts to block the Initiative, GMA violated state campaign finance laws by bundling contributions without declaring itself a political committee. The complaint alleges that GMA raised and spent more than $7 million dollars on its “No on 522” campaign and falsely listed itself as one of the top five contributors, concealing the identity of the actual donors. The complaint further alleges that GMA consolidated fees it imposed on its members through a special assessment, allowing it to act as a conduit for the funds while hiding the identities of the actual donors.

In addition, the complaint alleges that GMA has failed to file as a political committee or file any of the necessary reports on donor information required of a political committee. State law requires any person having the expectation of receiving contributions or making expenditures in support of or opposition to a ballot provision to file with the state. The Washington Court of Appeals’ holding in Evergreen Freedom Foundation v. Washington Education Association clarifies that an organization with an expectation of receiving contributions or an expectation of making expenditures is a political committee if its contributors have “actual or constructive knowledge” that their funds will be used for electoral political activity. Further supporting this allegation, in a recent advisory opinion, the Public Disclosure Commission indicated that a food and grocery cooperative is a political committee if it has received contributions of any amount, even if less than a dollar.

Washington laws prohibit contributions to a political committee under a fictitious name, anonymously, or by one person through an agent, relative, or other person in such a manner as to conceal the identity of the source of the payment or in any other manner so as to effect concealment. Under state law, political committees must report the identity of all people and entities who have contributed funds, and must identify the “Top Five Contributors” who have contributed more than $1000 in a given year in political advertisements supporting or opposing ballot measures.

This complaint follows a recently dismissed lawsuit filed by the non-profit “Moms for Labeling,” which was dismissed because the group failed to wait the required 55-days after giving notice of intent to sue and filing its complaint. GMA requested that the court sanction Moms for Labeling under a statute intended to prevent frivolous lawsuits, calling the suit “a strategic attempt to suppress [its] political speech.” The court agreed and fined the non-profit $10,000.

In the current case, the Attorney General’s office is seeking civil penalties and a temporary restraining order against GMA, and has asked the court to order the group to comply with state disclosure laws.

More information on GMO labeling:

Yes on 522

Earth Opensource

Labeling GMOs

Yes on California Prop 37

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