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Is OCA’s “Traitor” Boycott Working?

With less than two weeks to go before voters in Oregon and Colorado decide on ballot initiatives to require mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs, the Junk Food Giants are at it again.

It’s boycott time again.

With less than two weeks to go before voters in Oregon and Colorado decide on ballot initiatives to require mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the Junk Food Giants are at it again.

According to the latest numbers provided by the pro-labeling campaigns (as of October 22, 2014), the opposition in Oregon has raised $16.5 million to defeat Measure 92, while opponents of Colorado’s Proposition 105 have raised $14.3 million.

Monsanto is the largest donor to both campaigns, with combined donations totaling approximately $8.8 million. While Dow has spent only $668,000 in both states, DuPont Pioneer has dumped a combined whopping $7.46 million into the opposition’s war chests in Colorado and Oregon.

But apart from Monsanto, and now DuPont Pioneer, the most prolific donors to the campaigns intent on defeating the Oregon and Colorado GMO labeling initiatives have been large, multinational food corporations. Many of these corporations own organic and “natural” brands—brands we’ve been asking consumers to boycott ever since Big Food helped defeat Proposition 37, California’s citizen-led GMO labeling initiative, in 2012.

Has the boycott strategy worked?

Aside from a couple of exceptions, the “Traitor” Boycott hasn’t kept Big Food from continuing to spend millions to block GMO labeling campaigns. But there’s evidence that the reputations, and in some cases, revenues, of some of the natural and organic brands have suffered. And even more evidence to suggest that some of those brands’ parent companies, including big anti-labeling donors Coca-Cola and General Mills, are struggling to overcome declining profits and consumer distrust.

This much is clear: It’s time to step up the pressure on all of the brands owned by companies that are pouring millions of dollars into defeating your right to know.

Big Food Would Rather Fight than Switch

The big, multinational food companies are pouring millions into fighting GMO labeling laws for one reason—to protect the profits they make by selling products loaded with cheap, GMO ingredients like hydrogenated cooking oils, sugar (from genetically engineered beets), high fructose corn syrup and trans fats.

GMOs are the feedstock for junk food. Even though these corporations make GMO-free versions of many of their brands, for sale in countries that require labeling of GMO ingredients, here in the U.S., companies are digging in their heels to avoid reformulating popular junk food brands.

With 93 percent of Americans in favor of GMO labeling laws, has Big Food’s very expensive, very public anti-labeling support made the companies’ brands less appealing to consumers?

Let’s take a look at a few of the top funders of anti-labeling campaigns.

Coca-Cola: The headlines say it all. “Have a Coke and a…Nevermind,” wrote a blogger at Barron’s this week. “Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors,” according to Slate. Coke’s third-quarter net income was down a staggering 14 percent, compared with the previous year. The company’s answer to consumers’ lack of interest in its product? Its “Share a Coke” campaign, launched in June. The “mass personalization” campaign aims to make people more eager to buy Coke, by putting “ordinary names” on Coke cans and bottles. Nice try, but as one reporter wrote, “Investors waiting for Coca-Cola’s fundamentals to turn around will need strong stomachs.” Coke donated $3.2 million to defeat Prop 37 and I-522, and despite its recent financial woes, has so far contributed a total of $2.27 million to the NO on 92 and NO on Prop 105 campaigns.

General Mills: Following a “bleak” fourth quarter, General Mills recently announced a two-year plan to cut costs by $100 million by, among other things, closing two plants and slashing 700-800 jobs. The struggling cereal-maker took a couple of steps this year to try to woo health-conscious consumers. In January 2014, the Minneapolis-based company announced that its Cheerios brand would be GMO-free. (The company said none of its other brands would follow suit and, in September, shareholders unanimously rejected a proposal to dump GMOs from all General Mills products). Just this week, General Mills finalized its acquisition of Annie’s Naturals, a move aimed at boosting sales by capturing a piece of the growing organic sales pie. Annie’s reported 20-percent sales growth in fiscal year 2013. But according to Sustainable Food News, the organic favorite recently reported a first-quarter net loss of $1.1 million, and a 45-percent decline in sales “due to inventory reductions by its largest customer.” The Organic Consumers Association added Annie’s to the boycott list, after the acquisition was announced. General Mills donated a total of $3.2 million to defeat Prop 37 and I-522, and has contributed $1.5 million so far in an attempt to block GMO labeling initiatives in Oregon and Colorado.

Kellogg’s: Whether it’s lack of consumer interest in cereals, or growing concern about the ingredients in those cereals—or a reputation tarnished by lawsuits and the company’s support of anti-labeling campaigns—either way, Kellogg’s isn’t doing a lot better than General Mills. According to the Motley Fool: “Sales in Kellogg’s biggest division, U.S. breakfast foods, fell 5 percent last quarter. Worse still, operating profit from that product line was down 20 percent through the first six months of the year.” Kellogg’s doesn’t rank high in the trust department among consumers who favor transparency in labeling. Earlier this year, the Battle Creek, Mich., company paid $5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit for falsely labeling Kashi products as “All Natural” or “Nothing Artificial.” Kellogg’s has contributed a total of $1.85 million to defeat GMO labeling initiatives.

Hershey’s: The Hershey brand itself is healthy, at least among children and teens, according to the latest Piper Jaffray “Young Love” survey, which ranked Hershey’s second only to iPad. Still, sales are down and the chocolate-maker is looking to the acquisition of Shanghai Golden Monkey Food Company, a leading confectionary in China, to help revive them. Hershey’s donated $800,000 to defeat California’s Prop 37 and Washington’s I-522, and another $500,000 to defeat this year’s initiatives in Oregon and Colorado. The company has only one organic brand on the “Traitor” Boycott list—Dagoba.

Pepsi-Co: One giant corporation heavily invested in defeating consumers’ right to know, but still apparently thriving, is Pepsi-Co. Across-the-board sales of soda are down. But analysts say the company’s financial strength is due in large part to strong sales of its Doritos and Frito-Lay brands. One Pepsi brand that isn’t thriving is Naked Juice (also on our Traitor Boycott list). In August, Pepsi settled a $9 million lawsuit for using phrases like “100% Juice,” “100% Fruit,” “From Concentrate,” “All Natural,” “All Natural Fruit,” “All Natural Fruit + Boosts” and “Non-GMO” to describe its “healthy” Naked Juice line. Pepsi is one of the biggest donors to anti-labeling campaigns, having contributed $4.8 million in California and Washington, and $3 million in Oregon and Colorado.

Two companies that previously donated to anti-labeling campaigns have been missing-in-action in Oregon and Colorado. Unilever, owner of Ben & Jerry’s, donated $467,000 to help defeat Prop 37 in California, but sat out the battle over I-522 in Washington. The global food company hasn’t directly donated to anti-labeling campaigns in Oregon and Colorado. But Unilever is a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a donor to all anti-labeling campaigns, and party to a lawsuit against Vermont aimed at overturning the state’s new GMO labeling law, passed earlier this year.

Nestlé, owner of Gerber Organic and also a member of the GMA, contributed a total of $3 million to defeat California and Washington State initiatives. So far the company hasn’t shown up on the list of donors to anti-labeling campaigns in either Oregon or Colorado.

Did consumer pressure cause Unilever and Nestlé to back off in Oregon and Colorado? We can’t prove that. But we do know that it was fear of consumer backlash, following California’s Prop 37 campaign, that led the GMA to illegally launder millions in donations to the NO on I-522 campaign the following year, in Washington, in order to shield food corporations.

What about the organic and natural ‘Traitor’ brands?

Organic Consumers Association first launched the “Traitor” Boycott, in 2012, on the premise that the more than one million consumers in our network don’t buy products like Coke, Diet Pepsi and Fruit Loops—but they do buy organic and natural brands owned by Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Co and Kellogg’s.

Initial response was strong. Consumers signed petitions, harassed brands on social media, called customer hotlines.

Especially encouraging were the trends we found, in the year immediately following the loss of Prop 37 in California, as we researched organic and natural health stores for our top Right to Know Grocer’s Contest. A significant number of store owners and managers told us at the time that they were discounting and/or eliminating not only products containing GMOs, but organic (non-GMO) products owned by the parent companies of big donors who opposed California’s GMO labeling initiative.

For example, a manager at Eugene, Ore.-based Sundance Natural Foods, told us in early 2013:

“Our policy is to investigate the business practices of parent companies. If a brand line of organics happens to be owned by a multinational or national brand identified as a “traitor brand”, we do a practices and policy analysis of the subsidiary company in relation to the practices of the parent company. If we feel that the parent company exerts undue influence on the practices of the organic line, we then begin to phase out or search for ways to reduce brand representation on or shelves.”

This week, we checked back with Sean O’Hare at Florida-based Sunseed Natural Foods Co-Op, to ask if the store continues to phase out brands owned by anti-labeling donors, and he confirmed that’s the case. He said Sunseed has replaced some of those brands with alternative “brands with integrity.”

Did all this consumer outrage and responsive (and responsible) buying by retailers have an impact?

According to April 2014 SPINS data, brands that contributed to campaigns opposing Proposition 37 and I-522 showed a 0.02-percent decline during the first three months of 2014, compared with same-period sales in 2013. Sales of brands that supported Prop 37 and I-522 grew at an average rate of 9.9 percent during the same three-month period. (Source: Sales data from SPINS, an independent information provider for the Natural and Organic industry. 12-week period ending 3/23/2014 versus the same period year prior).

One inside source at a major organic retail chain estimated a 20-percent decrease in sales of “Traitor” brands.

So, is the “Traitor” Boycott working?

We believe it is, as consumers pay more and more attention to GMO labeling initiatives, and who’s spending how much to defeat them. We also believe that by drawing attention to the parent companies of the “Traitor” brands, we’re slowly chipping away at those company images and brands.

Maybe not every brand. Maybe not every company.

But consumers are having an impact. And there’s no better time than now, while the money is still pouring into anti-labeling campaigns in not one, but two states, to renew the boycott pledge.

*Top donors to Colorado’s No on 105 Campaign
Monsanto, $4.7 million
DuPont/Pioneer, $3.04 million
Pepsico, $1.65 million
Coca-Cola, $1.1 million
Kraft Foods, $1.03 million
General Mills, $820,000
The Hershey Co., $380,000
J.M. Smucker Co., $345,000
Dow Agrosciences, a Dow Chemical Company, $300,000
Kellogg Co., $250,000
Conagra Foods, $250,000
Flowers Food Inc., $250,000
Smithfield Foods, $200,000
(*Source: No on 105 Campaign)

*Top donors to Oregon’s NO on 92 Campaign
Monsanto – $4.8 million
Dupont/Pioneer – $4.46 million
Pepsi – $1.4 million
Coke – $1.17 million
Kraft – $870,000
Land O’Lakes – $760,000
General Mills – $695,000
Kelloggs – $500,000
Dow – $368,300
Hershey – $320,000
Smuckers’ – $295,000
ConAgra – $250,000
(*Source: Oregon Secretary of State website)