retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Yesterday, MNB took note of a Fortune report that a Washington State Superior Court judge has ruled that the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) "broke the spirit and the letter of the law" when it "concealed the backers of a multimillion dollar campaign" designed to defeat a ballot initiative that would have mandated the labeling of products that include genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The ruling specifically found that GMA violated state campaign finance disclosure laws when it did not report that it funded the anti-labeling campaign with $11 million in funding from PepsiCo, Nestle and Coca-Cola.

GMA, which eventually did reveal the donors' names, has said that the ruling “will hurt the constitutionally protected right of trade associations to engage in political debate in the state.”

I commented, in part:

I'm not a lawyer, so I am singularly unqualified to make any legal pronouncements in this case. But it certainly sounds to me like GMA almost certainly held off as long as it could before listing its donors, hoping that its millions of dollars would have undue influence over the voting. I don't know if that falls to the level of intentional illegality, but I certainly think it stinks ... though a lack of transparency that seems right in character for those who so assiduously oppose GMO labeling.

On the broadest scale, I am totally sick and tired of a political system in which people and institutions can spend millions of dollars on one cause or another, and then hide in the shadows. As far as I'm concerned, the rule ought to be that if one donates or spends or loans more than $100 that is used to try to influence public opinion - or legislative votes - on behalf of any political issue or candidate, it ought to be made public within 30 days. We have the technology to make it so ... and just ought to do it.

This isn't about limiting free speech ... it is just requiring that people who finance campaigns - all campaigns - ought to be bathed in the disinfectant qualities of bright sunlight.

One MNB user disagreed:

That would provide an open-door for opponents to focus their attention on demonizing the supporters rather than challenging their ideas.  You might draw a lesson from what happened when New Coke was taste-tested without a name attached.  The results were rather fatally distorted.

I completely disagree. This isn't about demonizing supporters, just knowing who they are ... and understanding the context within which organizations and so-called public servants decide who and what to support.

MNB user Monte Stowell wrote:

Your review of the people and organizations who finance campaigns without divulging their identity was spot on ... Two words for you, Bravo and Amen!

MNB user Ron Rash wrote:

Could not agree more with your assessment of what is going on with the GMA and the GMO labeling laws.

I also agree it is not about free speech.  Spending money on political causes and opinions is free speech… one man might afford a megaphone while the other only a soap box, but both are exercising free speech.

This is about knowing who’s opinion it really is, and who will own it, and who is paying for it.  These companies prefer the shadows, but the judge at least brought partial sunlight to the whole affair.

From another reader:

Agree, interesting but not surprising. What I find most interesting is Nestle's involvement, given the EU requirements on GMO disclosures. Granted, Nestle markets many U.S. only products here, however it seems a bit disingenuous to attempt to block measures here that are standards in their home country. This may have been discussed in your previous GMO reporting, however I cannot give them a pass by not expressing disappointment. And we could also reflect on foreign companies influencing our political process, another "foul" act.

MNB user Bruce Wesbury wrote:

I’m glad to see that you are pissed Hillary Clinton does not disclose her contributions, Goldman Sachs speeches or her foundation donors.

I totally think she should.  They all should … as should every PAC and SuperPac on both sides of the aisle.  No argument here.

On the labeling issue, MNB user Paul Schlossberg wrote:

What happens when the laws and regulations in one state conflict with another state? What if a state enacts rules conflicting with federal standards?

How will companies decide which law takes precedence? 

What if the added information required (from a few different states) takes up more space than the physical dimensions of the label? 

There are existing specific minimum standards for font sizing (related to package size/shape) for mandatory text on a label: net weight or net volume; nutritional panel; allergens; ingredient list; and manufacturer information. 

Don't forget that there are other labeling elements: UPC bar code; expiration or use-by date; preparation instructions; storage suggestions (e.g., "keep refrigerated").

All reasonable points. I've actually argued that companies that achieve maximum transparency by simply putting a QR code on labels that allow consumers to access all relevant information; the actual label wording wouldn't have to be that extensive. And retailers could actually be seen as consumer-friendly if they had code readers for the shrinking group of people without smartphones.

I have no argument with a federal mandate. I have an argument with federal standards that can be seen as anti-transparency.

The Wall Street Journal reported that "Chipotle on Tuesday tapped meat industry expert James Marsden to be its new executive director of food safety. Mr. Marsden, a former Kansas State University meat-science professor, will oversee food safety across the 2,000-unit chain."

MNB user Chuck Jolley wrote:

They are fighting for corporate survival on two fronts: Science and public opinion.  I know Dr. Marsden well and am confident that he will give Chipotle the best advice possible but the public doesn’t often give a damn about the science involved.  The chain’s top execs need to work hard to demonstrate they’re willing to go the extra mile for food safety. They’ve already stubbed their toe several times on food safety issues, they don’t need to indicate to the public that they are willing to do it again.
KC's View: