By Alexis Baden-Mayer and Ronnie Cummins
What do a former mouthpiece for tobacco and big oil, a corporate-interest PR flack, and the regional director of a Monsanto-funded tort reform group have in common?
They're all part of the anti-labeling PR team that will soon unleash a massive advertising and PR campaign in California, designed to scare voters into rejecting the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Acti.
In November, California voters will vote 'yes' or 'no' on a law to require mandatory labeling of all genetically engineered ingredients in processed foods, and ban the routine industry practice of mislabeling foods containing genetically engineered ingredients as 'natural.' Polls show that nearly 90 percent of the state's voters plan to vote 'yes.' But when November rolls around, will voter support still be strong? Not if the biotech, agribusiness, and food manufacturers industries can help it.
It's estimated that the opposition will spend $60 - $100 million to convince voters that genetically engineered foods are perfectly safeii. They'll try to scare voters into believing that labeling will make food more expensive, that it will spark hundreds of lawsuits against small farmers and small businesses, and that it will contribute to world hunger.
None of this is true. On the contrary, studies suggest just the opposite.
Here's what is true: The opposition has lined up some heavy-hitters and industry-funded front groups -- masquerading as "grassroots" organizations -- to help spin their anti-labeling propaganda machine. You have the right to know what's in your food. You also have the right to know who is working tirelessly to prevent you from ever having that right – and who is signing their paychecks. Here's a partial lineup of hired guns and organizations behind the anti-labeling advertising blitz soon to hit the California airwaves:
Tom Hiltachk: Monsanto's Man in California
Tom Hiltachk is the PR gunslinger behind the Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition (CACFLP), an anti-labeling front group. A partner at the Sacramento-based lobbying firm Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk, Hiltachk is no stranger to front groups. With a little help from his friends at Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, he helped organize the Californians for Smokers' Rights group to fight anti-smoking initiatives in the 1980s and 1990siii.
He also helped form the Californians for Fair Business Policyiv – a so-called "grassroots" organization, but actually a front group to mobilize business opposition to anti-smoking initiatives. That organization was funded by an "academic" front groupv – the Claremont Institute – which was in turn funded by tobacco companies.
Hitachk also has ties to Big Oil, including a colorful history with California's Proposition 23, a conservative-backed ballot initiative launched – and defeated – in 2010.
The initiative, supported by Big Oil, would have repealed California's clean energy and climate laws. Hiltachk was initially an ally of Ted Costa, a veteran right-wing activist behind many conservative initiatives, including Prop 23, and head of the group People's Advocatevi. But that relationship soured, according to ThinkProgress.orgvii, when Costa realized that Hiltachk's main motivation was to funnel the $50 million that he hoped would be raised from oil companies and the Chamber of Commerce to himself and his friends.
Coalition Against Costly Food Labeling Proposition
The Coalition Against Costly Food Labeling Proposition (CACFLP)viii runs a website called stopcostlyfoodlabeling.com, giving the impression that this is a group concerned about protecting consumers' wallets. But the website lists only one consumer group in its coalition – Consumers Coalition of California. A search of the IRS.gov site turns up nothing on this group.
According to the coalitions' 2009 990-Form published on Guidestar.org, this Torrance, California-based coalition describes itself as: "Research and oriented community education studies and info for residential and small businesses advocating on issues affecting major legislation." The group has no website.
No other national or California-based consumer groups are listed on the CACFLP site.
CACFLP's website does list some powerhouse coalition members, however, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), whose members also include Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow and Syngenta, as well as many large food processors and supermarket chains, and the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI) , whose members include Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow and Syngenta. Both groups are based in Washington DC. As of March, the GMA and the CBI had contributed a combined $625,000 to the CACFLPix – presumably to "protect" consumers from GMO labeling. Both groups have publicly opposed this initiativex.
Monsanto recently made the following statement in support of CACFLPxi:
"Monsanto is part of a growing coalition of California farmers, food producers, grocers, retailers, and others which has been formed to oppose the California measure. As a member of both GMA (Grocery Manufacturers Association) and BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization), we support the organizations' involvement in the California campaign to oppose the costly and extreme measure."
Kathy Fairbanks: Voice of the People?
Kathy Fairbanks wants consumers to believe she's on their side when she warns them that requiring labels on genetically engineered foods will raise their grocery bills. But since when has she fought for the little guy? A glance at her resume reveals a long list of pro-corporate gigs, including some involving illegal donations and questionable practices.
In 2010, Fairbanks worked for the Californians for Fair Auto Insurance Rates (C-FAIR); an insurance industry front group set up by billionaire Mercury Insurance executive George Joseph. C-FAIR launched a California ballot initiative, Prop 17, to raise rates on consumers who had been without coverage, despite a voter-approved law banning the practice.
Fairbanks' work on the 2010 ballot initiative was investigated in a San Francisco Bay Guardian piecexii called "Buying Power: How PG&E and Mercury Insurance Are Spending Millions to Try to Trick Californians into Voting for Corporate Interests," and a San Diego Union Tribune articlexiii, "Insurer Veils Its Funding of Measure: Literature for Prop. 17 Omits Mercury's Millions."
During the initiative battle, the state Department of Insurance accused Mercury of illegal practicesxiv, including unfairly denying coverage and charging discriminatory rates to motorists who were not at fault in accidentsxv, were members of the armed forces or worked in certain professions. It found Mercury had a "lengthy history of serious misconduct" and an attitude of "contempt toward and/or abuse of its customers, the [insurance] commissioner, its competition and the Superior Court." Mercury paid $300,000 to settle the allegations. Fairbanks also worked on the wrong side of consumers on the following pro-big business campaigns:
- In 2008: spokesperson for the opposition to Proposition 7xvi, a California ballot measure to require half the state's electricity to come from renewable sources by 2025.
- In 2006: helped defeat Proposition 82xvii which would have provided credentialed teachers to 150,000 4-year-olds living in the city, funded through tax increases on individuals earning more than $400,000 a year, and on couples making more than $800,000 a year.
- In 2005: spokesperson for Steve Poizner's Campaign for State Insurance Commissionerxviii , whose funding was controlled by Poizner, a wealthy Silicon Valley Republican. The fund was required to return $1.75 million in illegal donations made by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his campaign committee.
Fairbanks also worked for the California Chamber of Commerce, in 1999, when the Chamber was spending $2.4 million per legislative session on lobbying. The list of bills she urged Gov. Davis to veto included a bill that would have increased workers compensation benefits, and one that would have allowed employees to use up to half of their annual sick leave to stay home and care for sick family members. She also opposed limiting the expansion of Big Box stores and barring businesses from using revenues from state contracts for anti-union activities.
Maryann Marino and the California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA): Defending Small Farmers?
Maryann Marino is the Southern California regional director of California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA)xix, which according to Public Citizen is one of many so-called "lawsuit abuse" groups throughout the country that are part of a national, corporate-backed network of front groups that receive substantial financial and strategic assistance from the tobacco industry and some of America's biggest corporations.
According to Public Citizen:
"These groups masquerade as grassroots citizens groups spontaneously manifesting citizen anger against so-called 'lawsuit abuse.' The groups aim to incite public scorn for the civil justice system, juries and judges, and to pave the way for enactment of laws immunizing corporations from liability for actions that harm consumers."
Sure enough, Marino recently told KABC-TV, Los Angeles, the GMO labeling initiative is "not really about the right to know, but rather the right to sue." xx In 2000, the Center for Justice and Democracy issued a report on CALAxxi which unmasked "funding by self-serving mega-corporations that secretly spawned a national network of fake citizens' organizations," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook.
"These so-called citizens groups are doing the bidding of the corporate funders and are pushing at all levels to deny Americans access to the courtroom and to create a legal environment that shields corporate wrongdoers from accountability."
American Tort Reform Association (ATRA): Champion of Food Safety?
Maryann Marino's organization, CALA, is a state chapter of the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), which receives substantial financial and strategic assistance from the tobacco industry and America's biggest corporations, including Philip Morris, Dow Chemical (currently seeking approval for Agent Orange Corn), Exxon, General Electric, Aetna, Geico and Nationwide.
ATRA now keeps its membership secret, but according to a 1993 American University Law Review article by P.R. Sugarmanxxii, Monsanto Chemical Company, RJR/Nabisco, E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Company were among just a few of the companies and industry trade association members. According to "Justice For Sale: Shortchanging the Public Interest for Private Gain," a 1993 report by the Alliance for Justicexxiii:
"The ATRA is made up of corporation trade groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association -- thus giving corporations a decoy and accomplice group two full steps removed from their board rooms."
In 2008, the last time they made the names of any of their members publicxxiv, a list of "sample members" included Kraft Foods Inc., the 3rd largest packaged food company in the U.S. Kraft opposes GMO labels, but defends its use of GMOsxxv. In return for Monsanto's support, ATRA has been a relentless cheerleader for the company's lawlessness.
ATRA applauded Monsanto for skirting plaintiffs' claims for medical monitoring after Monsanto was found to have been knowingly polluting the small town of Anniston, Alabama, with dangerous levels of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs). (The residents surrounding the Monsanto plant were predominantly minorities.
The first lawsuit, brought in state court, went to trial and the jury found Monsanto guilty of a variety of torts, including negligence, nuisance and trespass. This case was eventually folded into a similar federal case, concluding in a global settlement fining Monsanto $700 million for its egregious behavior toward the Anniston residents.)
ATRA's publication, Judicial Hellholes, in a postxxvi titled, "Food Eaters 1, Uncompetitive Organics Industry 0," calls atrazine, the infamous endocrine-disrupting pesticidexxvii, "a safe and widely used weed killer."
Neither CALA nor ATRA have voiced concern about Monsanto suing farmers in 143 different patent infringement lawsuits when their crops were unintentionally contaminated with Monsanto's genetically engineered organisms (GMOs)xxviii. Marino does, however, have a problem with farmers getting together to bring one lawsuit against Monsanto to stop the harassment.
Find our Common Ground: Advocating for Moms and Regular Folks?
The newly launched website, Find Our Common Groundxxix, may not fit in the heavy-hitter category, but it's another example of a thinly veiled attempt by a group to look as if it's working for small farmers, gardeners, and health-conscious folks. The group also has a facebook pagexxx, to help spread its folksy message.
Direct from the group's website:
"Consumers aren't getting the real story about American agriculture and all that goes into growing and raising their food. We're a group of volunteer farm women and we plan to change that by doing something extraordinary. Our program is called CommonGround and it's all about starting a conversation between women who grow food, and the women who buy it. It's a conversation based on our personal experience as farmers, but also on science and research. Our first goal is to help consumers understand that their food is not grown by a factory. It's grown by people and it's important to us that you understand and trust the process. We hope you'll join in the conversation."
The message maker? A quick search on Wois.com reveals that Osborn Barr Communicationsxxxi, a PR company with ties to—who else?—Monsanto, owns the domain name. Osborn Barr specializes in agriculture and rural communities and is used to create front groups for their clientsxxxii. In 2006, Monsanto hired Osborn Barr to work on the controversial recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone issue, so Osborn Barr set up American Farmers for Advancement and Conservation of Technology (AFACT), a pro-rbGH farmer front groupxxxiii.
There will be no lack of creativity and certainly no lack of money spent to defeat the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act. There should also be no lack of scrutiny when it comes to who is spreading the anti-GMO labeling message.
About the Authors
Alexis Baden-Mayer is Political Director of the Organic Consumers Association.
Ronnie Cummins is founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association. Cummins is author of numerous articles and books, including "Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers" (Second Revised Edition Marlowe & Company 2004).