The food and beverage industry has already donated over $7.9 million to federal candidates, parties and outside political groups during the 2012 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, demonstrating its power and influence in Washington.
The industry’s political spending has increased since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, but its lobbying efforts have long carried a hefty price tag, and critics warn that the lobbying has influenced the highest levels of government.
Critics say that first lady Michelle Obama has made the administration vulnerable to the powerful food lobby in her push to address childhood obesity through the Let’s Move campaign.
Reuters reported a meeting in the White House with executives from companies including Kellogg, General Mills, and Nestle USA, Let’s Move backed off of its messaging against diet choices and began to emphasize exercise as a means to end childhood obesity.
Yale professor and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Kelly D. Brownell, believes that the first lady has found herself in a bit of a catch-22, becoming friendly with the food industry, while trying to advocate for healthier food.
“It does seem that there’s been a shift in priorities in the Let’s Move campaign in an election year,” Brownell said. “And with the Citizens United case and the companies being able to lobby almost without limit, it’s not surprising that the White House is more friendly toward the industry.”
Center for Science in the Public Interest director Margo Wootan reflected a similar sentiment, telling Reuters, “I’d focus more on exercise, too, if my husband was up for re-election.”
The debate over obesity, especially among children, is not limited to the executive branch. Congress spent this past year embroiled in debate and under pressure from food lobby groups over food marketing methods aimed and children.
Lobbyist James H. Davidson told Reuters that there “is no proof that food marketing causes obesity, and without it, there is no legal basis for restricting the ads,” citing the First Amendment.
Last year, Congress passed a set of voluntary guidelines for food and beverage companies to follow. Opponents to the guidelines, however, see the them as mandatory restrictions.
The debate over school lunches has also found its way to the national theater. Last November, after intense pressure from lobby groups, both French fries and pizza remained on the Agriculture Department lunch standards, with the tomato paste on pizza considered as a vegetable.
A new set of national standards for school lunches was approved this January, and it places stipulations on sodium and fat levels in food.
State and local governments are also responding with rigid standards. Students in Chicago are no longer allowed to bring their own lunches from home. They are required to only eat the school lunch.
As the fight continues over who controls food choices — the government or the consumer — money seems to be the name of the game.
Reuters reports that in 2009, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and the American Beverage Association spent more than $40 million lobbying Congress to kill a proposed soda tax. The amount was eight times higher than what those groups spent in the previous year. Spending by the groups decreased to $24 million in 2010 and $10 million in 2011.
Americans Against Food Taxes, a group funded by “sugary beverage makers,” even bought a 30-second Super Bowl ad during the 2011 game to get out their message.
“In contrast, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, widely regarded as the lead lobbying force for healthier food, spent about $70,000 lobbying last year — roughly what those opposing the stricter guidelines spent every 13 hours,” Reuters reported.
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