As I reported last month, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton draws broad financial support from the food and agriculture industries, including the fast-growing organic-foods sector. The latest WikiLeaks dump of Democratic Party emails shows that one prominent Big Organic player gets his emails answered by Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.
WikiLeaks has posted a searchable database of what are purported to be Podesta’s hacked emails, though the Clinton campaign has neither confirmed nor denied they’re authentic. As Politico reported Tuesday morning, Gary Hirshberg, the founder, chairman, and former CEO of organic-yogurt giant Stonyfield, exchanged several emails with Podesta, the WikiLeaks database suggests.
The emails, which can be found here, are from October 2015 to March 2016 and largely involve two storylines that played out simultaneously: Clinton’s hard-fought primary campaign with her Democratic challenger, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and a battle in Congress over whether and how to label genetically modified foods, which I covered at the time. The issues intersected because Sanders quite publicly supported labeling.
And though, like all food issues, GMO labeling has not been much of an issue in a campaign dominated for several months now by Trump’s wild-card antics, Hirshberg managed to get Podesta’s ear.
Hirshberg is a leader of the Just Label It campaign, a coalition pushing for a mandatory federal GMO label. He’s also a Clinton supporter who has served as a “bundler” of donations for her campaign—he has raised a bit more than $600,000 for Clinton’s campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. To make a long story short, Hirshberg pushes Podesta to have Clinton support mandatory labeling, against a fierce biotech-industry lobbying effort to push through a federal law that would annul state-level labeling legislation and make GMO disclosure voluntary.
Hirshberg uses both the Sanders challenge to Clinton and his own fundraising prowess as a spur to promote his labeling position. In an October 28, 2015, email to Podesta, Hirshberg suggests that Clinton declare publicly that she supports mandatory GMO labeling, on the grounds that “everyone has the right to know whether they are in your foods.” Hirshberg adds several benefits of such a position, including, “Bernie is absolutely firm about supporting mandatory labeling, so this would not give him an advantage on this topic.”
In a December 22 email, Hirshberg writes of hearing an account that Clinton had publicly opposed labeling:
Hillary’s publicly opposing this is both the wrong policy position but also a direct breach of what she told me, namely that she supports average citizens and moms having the right to know.
He adds: “I have raised nearly $400K for her because I believed what she told me. If that is not the case, I’d like the chance to speak to her.”
There’s no evidence he ever got his audience with the candidate. Meanwhile, the battle in Congress continued, and in March, an industry-backed anti-labeling law failed in Congress. On Twitter, Clinton celebrated the defeat:
Congress shouldn’t block states from giving families information about their food—glad the senate stopped this bill. https://t.co/lSq9gnbQZl
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) March 16, 2016
Soon after, Hirshberg emailed Podesta with the subject header “Thanks for whatever role you might have had in this,” linking to Clinton’s tweet. He adds that the tweet “is actually a very big deal and I already have used it to stop a lot of whiny Bernie people cold in their tracks.” He added that “HRC should be leading on this…it will absolutely be a huge step in helping to win over millions of young Bernie supporters.” Podesta responds, “Thanks Gary! It was thanks to your initial emails on this that we got the machinery in action and produced this tweet.”
And that’s pretty much that. The labeling battle continued in Congress, culminating in a bill passed in late June and eventually signed into law by President Barack Obama that struck a compromise: Food companies will have to disclose GM ingredients, but not on labels—they have the option of using QR codes that can be read by smartphones. The industry hotly supported the bill; Just Label It and other advocates bitterly opposed it.
As for the rest of the food industry, I searched the WikiLeaks’ Podesta database with lots of keywords and couldn’t find much else in the way of food industry attempts to get Podesta’s ear. I plan to do more searching. I did find an amusing November 2015 email exchange between Podesta and someone with the email handle “mpodesta,” presumably John Podesta’s wife, DC attorney Mary Podesta. Its subject header: “Mark Bittman,” the cookbook writer and former food politics columnist for the New York Times.
“[S]hould we invite him [Bittman] to our Xmas party?” Podesta asks. The response: “I don’t know who that is.”
This article has been updated.