First Lady Michelle Obama, Nutrition Advocates Aim to Navigate Resistance from Agribusiness, Corporate Lobbies

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First Lady Michelle Obama, Nutrition Advocates Aim to Navigate Resistance from Agribusiness, Corporate Lobbies

by
Cassandra LaRussa

Upon her arrival in the White House, First Lady
Michelle Obama launched the "Let's Move" campaign,
encouraging healthier eating habits and reduced obesity rates -- a
campaign for which she formally
unveiled
the details Tuesday.

"The
ultimate goal for 'Let's Move' is to solve the problem of childhood
obesity in a generation so that children born today grow up at a healthy
weight with better notions of what is healthy, with better habits, who
are incorporating exercise into their lives on a more regular basis,"
the first lady said at last month's Childhood
Obesity Summit
.  

The White House now even has its own food
garden and hosts an outdoor farmer's market every Thursday afternoon
from May to November, making fresh produce from surrounding farmers
available to city families.  

Yet just three blocks from the
farmer's market sits a McDonald's fast food restaurant, just one of the
100 McDonald's restaurants within 10 miles of Washington, D.C. And just
as close sits K Street, home to hundreds of agribusiness, restaurant and
beverage industry lobbyists bent on defending their clients from
political efforts that could harm profit.

These industries have
interests in a variety of issues, from immigration reform to free trade
to energy and climate change. It's a lobby also armed with massive
resources to combat another government initiative -- fundamental changes
in food safety and labeling standards.

Big Agribusiness No
Stranger to K Street

When government oversight and
stricter standards increase, the costs of production increase for
relevant industries. Thus, in the interest of protecting their own
bottom line, corporations spend millions to avoid what they believe is
unnecessary government intervention.

Since 1998, the agribusiness
sector
has poured more than $1 billion into lobbying for the
purpose of protecting and advancing its legislative interests. The
sector includes the crop
production and basic processing industry
, which alone spent $20.3
million in 2009; the food
processing and sales industry
, which spent $30.2 million in 2009
and the mighty agriculture
services and products industry
, which spent $34.4 million last
year.

McDonald's, for its part, recorded its strongest
lobbying output ever
in 2009, spending $480,000 at the federal
level to influence government.  

But in 2009 alone, the American
Farm Bureau
spent exponentially more -- $5.1 million to influence
federal legislation. A trade organization for farmers operating at the
county, state and national levels, AFB has designated food safety and
labeling as a top priority.

The AFB opposed H.R. 2749, the Food
Safety Enhancement Act, passed by the House last July. The trade group
opposed the bill because of a "number of onerous requirements in terms
of recordkeeping and traceability," AFB's Director of Congressional
Relations Kelli Ludlum explained.  

Instead, the AFB supports the
U.S. Senate version of this legislation, known as the FDA Food Safety
Modernization Act and introduced in March 2009.

This is a
"better approach" according to Ludlum, because it builds on the food
safety measures that already exist in the industry, instead of
introducing an entirely new system, which "may not be workable."  

According
to the congressional summary of the bill, H.R. 2749 provides for
greater regulatory powers by the FDA over the national food supply and
food providers, an increase the frequency of FDA inspections of food
processing plants, expansion of the FDA's traceback capabilities for
when outbreaks do occur, and mandatory recall authority for the FDA. It
also requires a $500 registration fee per food processing facility in
order to pay for significantly increased inspections.

The
congressional summary of the Senate version of the bill, S. 510, states
that it will expand the authority of the Secretary of Health and Human
Services to regulate food and grant a mandatory recall authority.
However, it does not require as much record keeping and reporting for
high-risk facilities and does not provide for a national traceback
system.   Ludlum says her organization is committed to food
safety, and that "it is not good business to put unsafe food in the
marketplace."

Ludlum calls food safety a "marketing issue,"
stating that the goal is to "market safe and nutritious products for
American families."

Currently, she explains, there is much
inconsistency in food safety standards; each retailer has their own
safety guidelines and the farmers must conform to different standards
"depending on who you're producing for."

There are basic
guidelines that the Food and Drug Administration requires, but "some go
beyond that," which can be a "burden" for farmers. This minimum
requirement that the FDA establishes is favorable for the AFB, for the
sake of "simplicity and consistency."

As for what this minimum
requirement will be, the AFB will continue to keep a close eye on
Capitol Hill, Ludlum said.

Trade
Groups Monitor Legislation

The National Restaurant
Association is another top
lobbying interest on S. 510
. A trade organization comprised of
member establishments including everything from fast food to fine
dining, the National Restaurant Association spent $2.9 million in
lobbying in 2009.

"S. 510 is our preference," explains
spokeswoman Sue Hensley, "because it recognizes the unique relationship
between the restaurant and the supply chain, without an unnecessary
burden on restaurant operators."

Hensley says that restaurants
would "face challenges trying to comply" with the strict traceability
and record keeping provisions in the House bill, and thus the National
Restaurant Association has spent money to lobby in support of the Senate
bill. Less stringent requirements would alleviate the "pressure on
small business," which Hensley points out are 70 percent of the
industry.

It appears many organizations in the agriculture
industry agree with the AFB and the National Restaurant Association:
they have concerns about the strictness of FDA regulations in the House
Food Safety Enhancement Act and are using lobbying cash to get their
message across.

Reinforcing many of these concerns is the testimony
of Pamela G. Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the Grocery
Manufacturer's Association
, who recently spoke before the House
Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health regarding the House Food
Safety Enhancement Act.

Although Bailey states that food safety
is important in terms of "consumer confidence," she notes that
"traceability will not always add value" and that the "cost and
feasibility of requiring every manufacturer to maintain the full
pedigree of every ingredient in every food may outweigh the benefits."

She
also notes that the GMA is "concerned about the size and purpose of
significant new [registration] fees."

The GMA spent $3.2 million
on lobbying in 2009.

A statement
from Thomas E. Stenzel, resident and chief executive officer of United
Fresh Produce Association
prepared for the House Energy and
Commerce Committee also asserts that the legislation should set an
"overall goal," instead of "overly prescriptive mandates" for
traceability.

The United Fresh Produce Association spent $1
million in 2009, advocating for, among other issues, less strict
regulations to decrease the burden on producers.

The industry's
major lobbying players generally prefer the Senate version, the FDA Food
Modernization Act, which has less record-keeping and mandatory safety
requirements, and does not contain a traceability program.

Influential
corporations that have lobbied on both the House and Senate bills
include Kraft
Foods
, McDonald's,
Wal-Mart
Stores
, PepsiCo,
the Snack
Food Association
, and the Food
Marketing Institute
.

Ultimately, it is the FDA, an agency
of the Department of Health and Human Services that is in charge of
enforcing the legislative regulations on the agriculture and restaurant
industries.

However, a closer look at the FDA reveals a close
relationship between FDA personnel and private sector professionals that
represent big agricultural companies. Sometimes, these are even the
same person, as government staffers go through Washington's "revolving
door" and land at in the private sector with interests before
government, or vice versa.

For instance, Michael
Taylor
, former vice president of public policy at agricultural
technology supplier Monsanto and former attorney for Monsanto, was appointed
senior adviser to the FDA commissioner in 2009.

In 2009 alone, Monsanto
spent $8.7 million on lobbying, in part to oppose
labeling of genetically modified foods
.

As senior adviser,
Taylor will be responsible for implementing food safety legislation.  

New York Senator Proves a Nutrition Ally

So
how will the first lady's efforts stand up against the cost-cutting and
marketing interests of the agriculture and restaurant association,
whose advocates are clearly embedded in both the legislative and
enforcement process?

Michelle Obama has targeted schools as the
best starting point, and Sen. Kirsten
Gillibrand
(D-N.Y.), pictured right, has taken up the cause
alongside her.

Gillibrand is currently planning to introduce
legislation regarding a national ban of trans fats, and she may attach
it to the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act for
which the first lady is advocating.

"Schools aren't getting all
the information they need from the federal government to keep our kids
safe from tainted products. Food items that are being pulled from
grocery store shelves across the country are still being served to
millions of school children," Gillibrand said recently in a press
release.

She also explains that in her legislation, "any school
that receives federal reimbursements would be required to remove food
containing trans fat from the school."  

The bill, which has been
introduced in both the House and Senate, will amend and update the
Child Nutrition Act of 1966 with national school lunch nutrition
standards.

And how are the industries reacting?

According
to Hensley of the National Restaurant Association, the restaurant
industry has recognized the ban of trans fats as a "real trend in the
marketplace" and is already "working with the supply chain to find trans
fat-free options." She also emphasizes the work that her organization
has been doing to lead an industry-wide coalition in support of "one
uniform national standard" for "comprehensive nutritional labeling" on
restaurant menus.

In March, beverage giant PepsiCo received
positive publicity for its initiative
to remove full-calorie sweetened drinks from schools by 2012. At the
same time, processed food giant Kraft Foods announced
that it will decrease the amount of salt in its products by an average
of 10 percent over the next two years.

Whether this is a
significant improvement is debated, but it is clear that the agriculture
and restaurant industries are acknowledging and reacting to increased
nutritional awareness in consumers.

And it seems to align with
Obama's words from the Childhood Obesity Summit: "We have to help
parents and empower consumers by encouraging companies to offer
healthier options and by providing more customer-friendly labels so that
people can figure out what's healthy and what isn't."

This
project also coincides with ever-increasing national awareness about
nutrition and healthy living. Local farming, agricultural
sustainability, and healthier school lunches have all recently increased
their national profiles with the help of non-profits, parent
organizations, television shows, documentaries and extensive literature.

But
if Gillibrand and the first lady are to take on the power of K Street,
lawmakers will still have to navigate substantial corporate interests
when making decisions about the strictness of regulations and standards
for the Child Nutrition Act.

Currently lobbying on the bills in
either the House and the Senate include Kraft Food, the American
Beverage Association
, Hershey
Co.
, the Snack Food Association, the American
Frozen Food Institute
and Coca-Cola
Enterprises
.

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