Last night, just as I was being released from jail for dumping “Monsanto Money” on the Senate floor, the DARK Act, a bill to Deny Americans the Right to Know about foods produced with genetic engineering, passed the Senate and we’ve just learned that the U.S. House of Representatives may vote next week on that version of the bill, which would send it to the President’s for his signature.
There are two reasons why the DARK Act passed the Senate.
The first reason is Monsanto’s money. The Senators who voted for the DARK Act took, on average, 2.5 times as much money from agribusiness as those who voted against.
But, second reason is even more disturbing. Several Senators who voted NO in March, blocking the DARK Act, voted YES this week, allowing the DARK Act to move forward. These Senators were brought to the DARK side when the Organic Trade Association endorsed the legislation. (A rebuttal to their lies about the bill can be found here.)
Why would the OTA do this? OTA is controlled by companies that have organic brands but make most of their money from GMOs—and they don’t want those GMOs labeled. Consequently, OTA has always been weak on the GMO labeling issue. As the Organic Spies films exposed, two companies in particular, can take credit for OTA’s anti-right-to-know stance: Smucker’s and WhiteWave.
Smucker’s is on Organic Consumers Association’s boycott list because of the hundreds of thousands of dollars the company donated to anti-labeling efforts, including secret illegal contributions made through the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Smucker’s plays a leadership role in the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
WhiteWave made our boycott list during the fight over GMO alfalfa because of its relationship to Land O’Lakes, which partnered with Monsanto to develop the alfalfa.
If we weren’t already boycotting Smucker’s and WhiteWave, we would have started when the Grocery Manufacturers Association announced that the two were among many members of the GMA that were committed to using the SmartLabel QR codes that Monsanto likes and that the DARK Act aims to enshrine in federal law.
Smucker’s Kim Dietz is the vice-president OTA’s board. WhiteWave has two people on the board: Samantha Cabaluna (she works for WhiteWave brand Earthbound Farm, the country’s leading grower of organic produce) and Kelly Shea (WhiteWave’s Vice President of Government & Industry Relations).
United Natural Foods Inc. is another company in OTA’s leadership that is working behind the scenes to crush the GMO labeling movement. UNFI’s Vice President for Policy & Industry Relations, Melody Meyer, is UNFI’s rep on the OTA board as OTA’s immediate past president.
UNFI has reversed the usual story of conglomeration. Instead of a big GMO food company eating up smaller organic and natural brands, UNFI is the organic and natural brand that got big enough to eat up its GMO food rivals. Tony’s Fine Foods is typical of recent UNFI acquisitions. Most of the foods it distributes are GMO. One infamous brand it carries is Foster Farms, California’s largest factory-farmed and GMO-raised chicken producer. UNFI recently bought Nor-Cal Produce, the largest wholesaler of conventional and organic produce in Northern California (only 1/3 of its produce is organic).
Pete & Gerry’s Organic/Nellie’s Cage Free is another OTA board member (Jesse Laflamme) that would benefit from the DARK Act. Whole Foods Market made a commitment to label all of its GMOs by 2018, including the products of animals raised on GMO feed. The trouble is, a lot of their high-welfare animal products, like Nellie’s, are raised on GMO feed and would have to be labeled. The DARK Act would prevent any GMO labeling that doesn’t match the law, and, since the DARK Act says animal raised on GMO feed can’t be labeled, Whole Foods would be blocked from labeling. Nellie’s wouldn’t get a GMO label.
When communicating with Congress as OTA board members, Deitz, Shea, Meyer, Cabaluna and Laflamme can falsely claim to be speaking on behalf of the organic community, when they really are representing the interests of a companies that profit primarily from selling GMOs.
This is why so many Senators who voted no in March voted yes this week. Smucker’s is based in Ohio, so they brought along Sen. Brown (Smucker’s is a big donor). WhiteWave is Colorado, so Shea can take credit for Sen. Bennet. UNFI and Earthbound (WhiteWave subsidiary) are heavies in California, so Meyer and Cabaluna turned Sen. Feinstein. Pete & Gerry’s/Nellie’s Cage Free, with most of their farmers in PA, got Sen. Casey. OTA board chair, Organic Valley, based in Wisconsin, got Sen. Baldwin to flip. As an all-organic company, OV’s position is the hardest to understand, but it may be as simple as their new partnership with General Mills, which is a leader among anti-right-to-know companies. And, the largest contributor to OTA’s PAC, Gary Hirshberg/Stonyfield (NH) swung Sen. Shaheen.
Those six votes made the difference. 60 votes were needed to move the DARK Act forward. The cloture vote was 65-35. If these six had stayed “no” the DARK Act would have been blocked with only 59 votes.
Hirshberg’s motive is the same as the OTA companies with small stakes in organic and a lot of GMO food they don’t want to label. His all-organic yogurt brand is owned by Danone. He also has a personal interest in being seen as a Democratic Party player. According to Open Secrets, he’s a “bundler,” a big donor who raises money from their friends. He organized an OTA fundraiser at ExpoWest for Stabenow right after the vote in March.
Yes, Gary Hirshberg’s Just Label It was officially against the DARK Act, but we know from Congressional staffers and movement leaders that Gary told them privately that he and other organic leaders would support a QR code compromise bill. He also conveyed his support for a QR code compromise to the press. This is from Politico:
CONSUMER GROUPS COME AROUND TO GMO SMART LABELS: Well, kind of. Gary Hirshberg, chairman of pro-labeling group Just Label It, told lawmakers during the hearing that his group is open to any national solution that requires disclosure of GMOs in foods, noting that “certainly the focus has been on labels, but there has been a lot of talk of technology” in helping to inform consumers. Hirshberg told reporters after the hearing that a final solution will likely be a mix of labeling and an online disclosure system, though he added that “in our view, however, two words in the ingredient label is a lot easier” than getting into smartphones — and consumers don’t use QR codes. While it was hedged support, Hirshberg’s comments go further than many other labeling advocates, who have long dismissed the idea that has been championed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and who have said that smart labels are a non-starter.
The plot got thicker right after Wednesday’s cloture vote, when Stonyfield’s parent company Danone announced that it has bought WhiteWave for $10.4 billion. So, now, we can see the direct influence Danone had on OTA’s two WhiteWave board members.
Thank you to everyone on this list who makes it possible for me and my organization’s members to buy food outside the corporate-controlled system. We need you all more than ever!
Alexis Baden-Mayer, Esq.
Organic Consumers Association